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Thread: What Role Does "Skill" Play When Evaluating Music?

  1. #46
    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Larkenfield View Post
    For me, it's not skill but mastery. There's a difference... Skill can come across as too self-conscious or mechanical, while mastery of all aspects of the art (melody, rhythm, harmony, color and texture) is always inspired.
    Interesting point, and I think there's an argument for not considering the kind of inspired mastery you describe as being skillful. It may take skill in order to get to a point where can be masterfully inspired, but they're not the same thing. I think of a composer like Mussorgsky who, by most accounts of those who cared about skill, was not terribly skilled; but few would dispute his inspired mastery in works like Pictures at an Exhibition or Boris Godunov. Similarly, I think it would be difficult to analyze the greatness of a work like Schubert's 21st Piano Sonata purely as an account of skill. Those melodies are so simple yet so effective; I'd think that anyone could've written them if all that was required was the skill to do so, but only one composer managed to.

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    Addressing both the same time, skill in composing to me, is achieving something worthwhile in music, whether something creative in expressive, or more technical terms. Pachelbel wrote a great Canon that is technically great and expressive. Webern also wrote a canon (his Symphony), using atonal language that had zero chance of being a popular hit, but still something great technically and expressive in a less obvious sense. That is something what I referred to as the initiated, consider worthwhile in music.

    Taylor Swift has skill in sensing what the audience wants and delivers, but her skill in creating something worthwhile in music in expressive, technical terms is not anything special to the initiated.

    By confining skill to the music itself, and bringing up the idea of the initiated, I think there is less argument, so that not anything any Joe (or Jane) writes could be considered equal or greater than Beethoven, just because it's a top 40 hit (remembering Right Said Fred).
    Well that's the rub: who decides what's "worthwhile in music?" Clearly, the audience that enjoys Taylor Swift (and I count myself among them) finds her musically worthwhile, and wouldn't do so if they didn't find her expressive. The fact that if we boil what she does down to technical terms and it happens to be simple, even boring, means what, exactly? Plus, is there not a different kind of skill that goes into songwriting than most pure composition? And who said one can't be expressive with great technical simplicity? As I alluded to above, Schubert didn't need the polyphonic wizardry of Bach to be expressive, nor did Mussorgsky need the orchestral scoring wizardry of Rimsky-Korsakov to be expressive. Even theoretically, I find it hard to think of a justification for the notion that things in art that would require great skill would, ipso facto, be more expressive than things that didn't.

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    Senior Member Captainnumber36's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveM View Post
    You evaded my questions and who said anything about absolute greatness or absolute pars? You are missing the point completely or choosing to evade it. If your goal is to write songs like Dylan and Neil Young, the assumption is that you have skill doing so or they won’t be like Dylan and Young.
    I'm afraid I'm missing your point. Could you state it differently?

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Enthusiast View Post
    Aside from the question of what we (each) mean by skill, it is clear that there are many different skills involved in composing music and very few (or no) composers excelled in all of them.

    But, to think of skill in general, I assume we can all agree that skills alone, no matter how necessary they may be, are not sufficient in themselves to result in great music? We may like to think that our favourite creative artists had great skill but this may be because we lack the confidence to assign value to a piece without being able to "see" the skill?

    What is left when skill is removed from the equation are things like vision. But don't you need skills to realise the vision? Obviously you do, so we are left with comparing pieces where (a) the skill requirement (to realise the vision) is greater with those where (b) the required skill (to realise the vision) is far less. Do we think that visions that require a lot of rare skills to realise are intrinsically greater than works that require a little skill? I don't think this can be the case, can it?
    Great post, and I think this eloquently and potently gets to many of the points I've been making myself. I think your second paragraph here is particularly important and echoes a thought that StrangeMagic had in the last thread; the idea that we consider something skillful more because we like it, rather than liking it because it's skillful.

    You offer paintings as an example, let me offer examples from guitar-based music (because I can't have this discussion without hearing the echoes of similar discussions I used to have on guitar forums):

    Example one, David Gilmour's solos in Comfortably Numb (2:38 and 5:05)


    Example two, Michael Angelo Batio's Speed Kills:


    There's no doubt which of these requires more skill. The former is so simple any first-year guitar player could play it and compose something like it. Break it down technically and there's nothing unusual about it; the second solo, eg, is just B-minor pentatonic blues, the kind of thing we've heard in thousands of blues/rock songs. The second piece is infinitely more technically advanced, the kind of things only the most dedicated and skilled guitarists can play, and being able to compose it would probably require being able to play something close to it just to imagine it. Yet how few people would consider the second piece superior? The former is considered one of the greatest guitar solos ever written, even by people who don't care for guitar solos. Why? Because it seems to illustrate the point that inspiration matters far more than skill, and the ability to be expressive isn't severely limited when working with simple tools and materials.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    I agree with MacLeod in not disagreeing with the general thrust of this, but my concern is how to take this very generalized, fuzzy perspective and get precise about quantifying what we're actually talking about.
    What I wrote may be generalized, but fuzzy it is not. Wash your mouth out with soap, EY!

    There is no precise, applicable unit for the "quantification" of artistic excellence. There is, though, an ability, which many possess in high degree but nearly all possess to some extent, to perceive that any number of the elements constituting an artwork have been handled better or worse by the artist.

    Among my concerns is that I think the kind of skill that's objectively quantifiable, the simple ability of a composer to do whatever it is that can be done, means very little in the final evaluation of music;
    I disagree (unless we're going to argue about "objectively" again, which I am not!). I think that in truly great composers - let's just take Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Brahms, my own "big 5" - the sense of a powerful mind in command of great resources is palpable, and I'll say the same for great artists in other mediums. We stand in awe of Bach's ability to search out the possibilities of his material in the most complex contrapuntal textures, the ability of Wagner to press the most flexible and far-flung chromatic harmony into the simultaneous service of psychology and structure, and the ability of Vermeer to see and transmit in paint visual phenomena in a form seemingly more real than reality itself.

    while the final impact that creation has on listeners means a great deal, and it's very easy for listeners to project our feelings of greatness onto the "skill" of the composer. I also feel like many elements within music, like melody, rely far more on ephemeral inspiration than any cultivated skill.
    All true, although the ability to spin a fine, memorable, affecting melody rests on a keen sense of form, which may legitimately be called a skill. Art isn't hocus pocus.

    Of course, I agree that listening is a skill as well, but are there not examples of "good" listeners who hear in a work or composer what many consider to be skillful, while still thinking the work or composer bad?
    What some people "think" and "consider" isn't necessarily a guide to anything.

  9. #51
    Senior Member tdc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    Great post, and I think this eloquently and potently gets to many of the points I've been making myself. I think your second paragraph here is particularly important and echoes a thought that StrangeMagic had in the last thread; the idea that we consider something skillful more because we like it, rather than liking it because it's skillful.

    You offer paintings as an example, let me offer examples from guitar-based music (because I can't have this discussion without hearing the echoes of similar discussions I used to have on guitar forums):

    Example one, David Gilmour's solos in Comfortably Numb (2:38 and 5:05)

    Example two, Michael Angelo Batio's Speed Kills:

    There's no doubt which of these requires more skill. The former is so simple any first-year guitar player could play it and compose something like it. Break it down technically and there's nothing unusual about it; the second solo, eg, is just B-minor pentatonic blues, the kind of thing we've heard in thousands of blues/rock songs. The second piece is infinitely more technically advanced, the kind of things only the most dedicated and skilled guitarists can play, and being able to compose it would probably require being able to play something close to it just to imagine it. Yet how few people would consider the second piece superior? The former is considered one of the greatest guitar solos ever written, even by people who don't care for guitar solos. Why? Because it seems to illustrate the point that inspiration matters far more than skill, and the ability to be expressive isn't severely limited when working with simple tools and materials.
    I agree with the thrust of your point, Gilmour's solo is less technical and more moving. But as far as your claim that any first year guitarist could play and compose something like it? No. If that were true we wouldn't consider it so exceptional, few people can put feel into a solo the way he does, and find that sweet balance between melodicism and blues. You just can't teach that. Gilmour is a jedi master at bending strings, few people can play the way he does.

  10. #52
    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    Well that's the rub: who decides what's "worthwhile in music?" Clearly, the audience that enjoys Taylor Swift (and I count myself among them) finds her musically worthwhile, and wouldn't do so if they didn't find her expressive. The fact that if we boil what she does down to technical terms and it happens to be simple, even boring, means what, exactly? Plus, is there not a different kind of skill that goes into songwriting than most pure composition? And who said one can't be expressive with great technical simplicity? As I alluded to above, Schubert didn't need the polyphonic wizardry of Bach to be expressive, nor did Mussorgsky need the orchestral scoring wizardry of Rimsky-Korsakov to be expressive. Even theoretically, I find it hard to think of a justification for the notion that things in art that would require great skill would, ipso facto, be more expressive than things that didn't.
    Bad choice of words on my part with the "worthwhile in music", I'll change it to "musically significant". There's nothing bad about Swift, she is an ok to good songwriter. Her music is just not really significant in any way. I agree great music doesn't need to be overly complex. In fact it takes great skill to write something significant and connect with listeners. I heard some people diss Dvorak on this board, but to me he has a rare gift of being able to write more accessibly expressive, and very well put together music. Who determines what is musically significant are those who've heard and analyzed a large part of what's out there (what I call the initiated, after Bane's use in the Dark Knight Rises ).
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member Gallus's Avatar
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    I wouldn't say Chopin's etudes are the greatest part of his oeuvre.

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    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    I think I have a good definition of what constitutes great art: grand design. It's a quality that all acknowledged great works of art share from paintings to poetry, film, music, etc. Something can be simple, and yet exhibit that quality.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    Senior Member DaveM's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post

    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo
    I also feel like many elements within music, like melody, rely far more on ephemeral inspiration than any cultivated skill.
    All true, although the ability to spin a fine, memorable, affecting melody rests on a keen sense of form, which may legitimately be called a skill. Art isn't hocus pocus.
    I think you let EY off the hook too easily. EY’s comment again diminishes one of the great skills of CM composers. It is not easy to come up with a melody that draws people in or create motifs that are developed in much the way an established melody is. My guess is that EY starts off (overall) with the premise that skill isn’t required and then comes up with something like ‘ephemeral inspiration’ to support it.

    I can’t imagine a composer leaning back in the chair and suddenly having inspiration that is immediately put to paper in finished form. (disclaimer, maybe a Mozart did it periodically). These things take time to flesh out and perfect.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveM View Post
    I think you let EY off the hook too easily. EY’s comment again diminishes one of the great skills of CM composers. It is not easy to come up with a melody that draws people in or create motifs that are developed in much the way an established melody is. My guess is that EY starts off (overall) with the premise that skill isn’t required and then comes up with something like ‘ephemeral inspiration’ to support it.

    I can’t imagine a composer leaning back in the chair and suddenly having inspiration that is immediately put to paper in finished form. (disclaimer, maybe a Mozart did it periodically). These things take time to flesh out and perfect.
    I'm happy to agree with you and with EY too!

    "Skill" and "inspiration" are not easy to disentangle in practice, the presence of the former often making the latter possible and the presence of the latter often driving the expansion and refinement of the former. Having had a thirty-some-year career as a piano accompanist for ballet, during which I set myself the strictly unnecessary but challenging and fascinating task of improvising (i.e., spontaneously composing) virtually everything I played, I know first-hand how skill and inspiration can either facilitate or limit each other. Had I been a better pianist technically my inspirations would have been better, but when I was most inspired - while playing an especially responsive instrument, or working with an especially musical dance instructor - the quickness and variety of my musical thinking increased, and with it both the musical interest of my compositions and my digital dexterity.

    We might try to break down and define these concepts individually, but a creative artist, when he's working at highest capacity, tends to experience inspiration, skill and technique as an indivisible, synergic whole.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Sep-25-2019 at 07:27.

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    Senior Member DaveM's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    ... Having had a thirty-some-year career as a piano accompanist for ballet, during which I set myself the strictly unnecessary but challenging and fascinating task of improvising (i.e., spontaneously composing) virtually everything I played, I know first-hand how skill and inspiration can either facilitate or limit each other.
    Improvising on the fly is a great skill. I admire anyone who has it.

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    Here’s something to think about when thinking about skill

    Last edited by Mandryka; Sep-25-2019 at 14:27.

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    Senior Member arpeggio's Avatar
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    I really do not understand what exactly is meant by skill.

    Well based on what I think skill means, I have heard many works that are skillful that were duds. But I can not think of a work I am familiar with that was not skillful.

    Of course if my understanding of what is meant by skill is bogus
    It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious. And I am a very ingenious fellow

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    Quote Originally Posted by arpeggio View Post
    But I can not think of a work I am familiar with that was not skillful.
    What do you think of that Lamonte Young piece?
    Last edited by Mandryka; Sep-25-2019 at 16:02.

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