Criteria for Determining Serious Artistic Merit

The subject of value in music is one of great interest to aesthetic philosophers. In addition to examining the writings of composers Paul Hindemith, Ernst Toch, and Leonard Bernstein; musicologists Eduard Hanslick and Alfred Einstein; and aesthetic philosophers Stephen Coburn Pepper, Leonard Meyer, and Bennett Reimer, Ostling discussed the subject with his teachers and colleagues. He synthesized a number of common themes from these writers and other sources and proposed the following set of criteria for judging a composition on the basis of "serious artistic merit":

1. The composition has form--not 'a form' but form--and reflects a proper balance between repetition and contrast.
This statement addresses the overall organization of the piece. It seeks to clarify that the criterion in this instance should not be an identifiable or specific mold as in the standard classic forms (rondo, song and trio, sonata, fugue--forms of music), but form in music--an orderly arrangement of elements (always given the stylistic context). In a certain sense it is difficult to imagine how form in some sense could be non-existent in music. Berry
7 defines form as 'the sum of those qualities in a piece of music that bind together its parts and animate the whole.' Grove's Dictionary states: 'As long as musical sound consists solely of repetition, the monotone, it remains formless. On the other hand, when music goes to the other extreme and refuses to revert to any point, either rhythmic, melodic or harmonic, which recollection can identify, it is equally formless. Repetition and contrast, therefore, are the two twin principles of musical form.'8

This criterion requires a judgment as to whether these twin principles (repetition and contrast) are in proper balance in a composition.

2. The composition reflects shape and design, and creates the impression of conscious choice and judicious arrangement on the part of the composer.
This statement seeks to be a bit more specific in the area of form. Cooper
9 speaks of control in organization. As extracted from his essential points, this criterion seeks to address the craftsmanship of the composer in controlling dynamic and static gestures, control of phrasing and cadencing (again given the stylistic context), the pacing of musical events, and control of internal arrival points.

3. The composition reflects craftsmanship in orchestration, demonstrating a proper balance between transparent and tutti scoring, and also between solo and group colors.
This criterion applies to the composer's control over texture and color. Rogers
10 establishes an analogy between the artist's palette and the selection of instrumental colors in music. He indicates that single families and solo instruments are transparent, and that mixing produces secondary shades. Increased mixing and doubling leads to neutrality and grayness in color. Factors of musical color and texture must be in a proper balance in making a judgment of serious artistic merit.

4. The composition is sufficiently unpredictable to preclude an immediate grasp of its musical meaning.
If the tendencies of musical movement are totally predictable, and directly apparent upon first hearing the composition, the value of the music is minimized. This statement does not intend to imply that only complex music can meet standards of serious artistic merit. It is true that a complex composition requires several hearings to grasp its intricacies in musical meaning, but a composition which is not complex might provoke a distinctive and unique response from the listener which of itself places that composition in the category of being sufficiently unpredictable to preclude an immediate grasp of its meaning, thus sustaining its intrigue through repeated hearings.

5. The route through which the composition travels in initiating its musical tendencies and probable musical goals is not completely direct and obvious.
Concerning this aspect of value in music, Meyer states the following principles: '1) a work which establishes no tendencies...will be of no value. 2) If the most probable goal is reached in the most direct way, given the stylistic context, the musical event, taken in itself, will be of little value. 3) If the goal is never reached, or if the tendencies activated become dissipated in the press of over- elaborate, or irrelevant diversions, then the value will tend to be minimal.'

6. The composition is consistent in its quality throughout its length and in its various sections.
This criterion seeks to assure that in a symphony, for instance, a final movement reaches the same level of quality as the opening movement, and the middle movements. In a suite, the movements should not be alternately profound and trivial. This criterion would, of course, also apply to the various sections of a single-movement composition.

7. The composition is consistent in its style, reflecting a complete grasp of technical details, clearly conceived ideas, and avoids lapses into trivial, futile, or unsuitable passages.
Hanslick, writing in 1854, makes the following statement concerning style: 'Style in music, we should like to be understood in a purely musical sense: as the perfect grasp of the technical side of music, which in the expression of the creative thought assumes an appearance of uniformity. A composer shows his 'good style' by avoiding everything trivial, futile and unsuitable, as he carries out a clearly conceived idea, and by bringing every technical detail into artistic agreement with the whole.'

Machlis13 describes style in art as including all factors that may possibly influence the grammar, the syntax, and the rhetoric of the language of art. In another manner, style may be defined as describing a composition in terms of its consistencies with, and differences from, other compositions relating to the historical periods of music. Any eclecticism reflected in the music must be justified by the artistic concept behind the work, rather than existing as a chance happening which indicates either incompetence, or a lack of care in the technical details.

8. The composition reflects ingenuity in its development, given the stylistic context in which it exists.
Thomson states that the clinical signs of quality in music are three:1) the ability of a work to hold one's attention, 2) one's ability to remember it vividly, and 3) a certain strangeness in the musical texture, that is to say, the presence of technical invention such as novelty of rhythm, of contrapuntal, harmonic, melodic or instrumental device.'

The stylistic context in which the composition exists indicates that the development, and the ingenuity in development, is not restricted as with the development section of sonata form. The ingenuity indeed might be melodic, but also might be in the area of orchestration, harmony, rhythm, and other elements. Music which is not conventionally melodic in its orientation, if it is of high quality, will have some developmental aspect which characterizes the composition. Thomson uses the terms 'strangeness' and 'novelty' as related to the use of the elements and the ingenuity of development in the composition of high quality.

9. The composition is genuine in idiom, and is not pretentious.

This statement seeks assurance that the composition is true to the concept implied either by its title, or the intent on the part of the composer in presenting the composition as one of serious artistic merit. In reacting to a concert performance, American theorist Paul Cooper once described William Schuman's work Newsreel (with its sections titled "Horse Race", "Fashion Parade", "Tribal Dance", "Monkeys at the Zoo", and "Parade") to a college theory class as a better composition than others on the particular band concert, because it was genuine, i.e., it made no attempt to exist as anything more profound or learned than its musical conception would allow. ('This composition is a programmatic impression of the old motion picture newsreel, and, as such, is craftily constructed.') While it is theoretically possible for a fine piece of music to be totally mis-titled by the composer--logic dictating that the title a composer selects has no bearing on the quality of the music--this criterion seeks to guard against defects which are more basic to the quality of the music than the mere incongruous nature of the title in comparison with the music. There is much wind-band music which is permeated with melodic, and

particularly harmonic clichés, exuding the sound of commercial music while attempting to parade under the banner of artistic respectability as a work of serious artistic merit. It is often well-crafted in its orchestration. Thomson compares a genuine affective response on the part of the listener with a meretricious one.15 Such music often is falsely alluring, and should be avoided in considering a repertoire of serious artistic merit.

10. The composition reflects a musical validity which transcends factors of historical importance, or factors of pedagogical usefulness. Evaluators should rate a composition only on the basis of its significance as a composition of serious artistic merit. Care must be exercised to prevent such factors as the historical importance of a composition from contaminating an evaluation on the basis of its merit in quality. The evaluators also should avoid high ratings for a composition which might suit the wind-band medium well, but which might not withstand close scrutiny by musicians in general. 16


Ostling, Jr., Acton Eric. “An Evaluation of Compositions for Wind Band According to Specific Criteria of Serious Artistic Merit.” PhD diss., The University of Iowa, 1978.