Today I seek to address another excellent question from my friend Andrew, an important one for those of us who value people (as we all should).
“Is there a true way to evaluate what makes music good or bad? Or is all purely subjective?”
Absolutely, there is a way to evaluate what makes music good or bad, at least on some levels. But we must have some kind of scale or standard of which to evaluate it, otherwise it is subjective. The best response to this question in my opinion has come from Francis Schaeffer, a 20th century thinker who loved art and music. Schaeffer suggests four standards of judgment for art or music.
- Technical excellence
- Intellectual content (the values, and beliefs expressed through the work)
- The integration of content and vehicle; form and function
In an objective way, we can look at music and any art form and determine how technically excellent it is. We can listen to music and determine whether it has validity or not.
Q: Does the intellectual content have value and purpose?
Q: Is the musical content intellectual or conveying meaning?
We should be able to answer these questions with a yes or no. And of course, we can tell if music has order, if it functions well, and if the form is helpful and conducive to the content.
These are all components of music which can be fairly objective, and whether we personally like or enjoy a particular work of musical art may have little to do with whether these elements are present and effective or not.
But here is the kicker:
We don’t have to like music for it to be good.
We don’t have to like music to recognize it is good.
I would hope that we would not like music that is bad, but I think it is fair to say that popular music has proven this statement wrong on plenty of occasions.
Why Does is Matter if we Recognize Music as Good or Bad?
One of reasons this matters is that if we value people, we should value good music.
We should value music that expresses these elements well, because if we do not appreciate music simply because of our taste, our disrespect is an affront to the composer and artist who have created good music, and we devalue the creator of the art by our disdain.
Even if it may not be our personal taste, we should respect and appreciate what is good, because we should recognize those who created it as being valuable.
 Francis Schaeffer A. Art and the Bible. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2006, p.62.
Schaeffer’s four-step scale for analysis is just a suggestion. I make no claim that this is a definitive way to analyze music, but I think it offers us an excellent starting point. If you would like to read more on this, I cover this extensively in Scales and Stumbling Blocks in The Tuned In Musician. Our values should also affect how we see music, and this truthfully could be subjective according to your worldview; but we would suggest an additional two elements for consideration; how well music is tuned in to the Creator and the community—more to follow on that.