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  • Brian Blume

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

The final one on this topic, this post probably involves more of my opinions than the first two. Just a warning. We have looked at how the composer of a piece can affect its reception and fame, as well as how innovation in a piece can give it value and prominence in the world's eyes. I would like to argue a third point in what makes a piece of music great, and that is whether it communicates something and moves a listener in some way. Yes, I realize this is a broad issue, but hang with me here. Think about it for a minute. What pieces of music do you qualify as being great? Why are they great? I will bet that there is something about each of the works you're thinking of that moves you, that draws you in, keeps your interest. In my opinion a great piece of music communicates a thought or idea in such a way that the listener must respond. A response might be one of nostalgia, sadness, or excitement. Maybe the music moves a listener to deep reflection and thought. Maybe a piece moves someone simply by its virtuosity (of course the performer(s) plays a large role in this). Something about a piece, possibly including the subject or inspiration of a piece, must connect with an audience, or least one listener, for that piece to really be considered great.

If I write a piece that is intended to depict images from my trip to East Asia, and upon listening, you think I took a trip to West Africa, then I would have a hard time calling the piece great. Or if, upon listening, you immediately lose focus and want to take a nap, I would again hesitate to consider this a great piece of music. I must note that this can not be a sole qualifier in determining whether a piece is great, because it puts so much stock in the listener's ability to understand what is being communicated in the music. A great piece of music might communicate something clearly to a learned listener, moving him in a deep way, while the same piece of music does nothing for another listener. Also, a piece may take several listenings/viewings before it communicates in such a way as to move a listener. Take for example, the music from the Rite of Spring (Stravinsky), which caused a riot at its premiere in 1913, and is now received as absolutely one of the greatest works in the repertoire. This ballet and its music took some time before they were understood and enjoyed by the public. Now, one could argue that the music of the Rite of Spring did move people, even if to a negative response. True. And this begs the question, could a piece be considered great if it garners widespread negative attention, moving audiences to respond with disdain? It's moving the audience, isn't it? Hmmm.... Well, I'll leave the answer to you. What do you think? What makes a piece of music great in your opinion?

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