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  • Brian Blume

What makes a piece of music great? (Part 1 of 3)

There are some pieces out there that are simply accepted as being great compositions, masterpieces, or the staples of the western art music tradition. And if you're like me, at some point you have had to ask, "Why?" Notice I'm not asking just what makes a piece great, but what leads it to be accepted as great, what makes it famous, for lack of a better term. I will be doing a multi-part post of my thoughts on this subject. Not so much as an academic, research type of post, but more of a philosophical, opinion-based one.

As an aspiring composer, as opposed to an established one, I have often questioned how the fame of a composer alone affects the acceptance of a new piece. Take, for example, Iannis Xenakis's multi-percussion solo, Rebonds. Arguably one of the top three most well-known and frequently played multi-percussion piece in the world today. And why? Well, there are several great reasons, but I might propose that the composer's name at the top of the piece has a large part in that. What if I wrote the exact piece (instead of Xenakis, that is), note for note, and shared it with percussionists and other musicians around the globe tomorrow? How many people would accept it with such enthusiasm as the piece is actually accepted today? I'm guessing it would be significantly fewer than have accepted and praised Xenakis's work (though I realize it can take time for people to accept a new work). No doubt Xenakis was a fine composer, and his impact on modern music composition is undeniably substantial. But how is it that he (a non-percussionist) can get away with writing a piece which is physically impossible for one percussionist with two hands to play (as written, without 'interpreting' the ink), while a student studying composition at a university would be counseled never to write such impossible combinations of notes? I worked on a cello piece with my composition teacher in school, and I was never allowed to write anything that was absolutely impossible for a cellist to play. Why would I want to? (Though, I suppose that could be a unique type of composition––knowingly write something impossible and see what performers do with it.) Do you see what I am getting at, here? Along the same avenue of thought, how much is a piece's fame affected simply by the opinions of the folks around you? Rather than by the merit of the actual composition itself? If I share a new marimba solo with you, tell you that it's all the rage because Famous Composer Guy wrote it, that everyone's playing this awesome piece, and you believe me (work with me here), you might accept it as such and start learning this piece. As you're learning the new solo, you think, "Gosh, compositionally, this piece is rubbish. But oh well, everyone else thinks it's cool. And Famous Composer Guy wrote it, so it must be great!" Then I tell you that it was my 9th grade student's first composition ever. How does that change your view of the piece? I do want to point out that I am not saying a piece becomes famous ONLY because of the composer's fame, just that it likely has something to do with it. Many well-known pieces become that way for reasons far beyond the names of their composers. So in summary, I recommend a few things: 1) Don't just accept a new piece because everyone else does or because it's written by someone famous. Decide for yourself if you like it, if you think it's a good piece of music. 2) On the other hand, don't immediately dismiss a piece of music because you don't like it at first or you're not sure about it. If it's well-known, there's probably a good reason beyond the composer's name. 3) Take a minute to answer the question, What do you think makes a composition famous? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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