Standard of Quality (Music)

Oct 24, 2022
15 min
1/06/2021

Standard of Quality in music is important to becoming a professional musician. While music is subjective, there are objective components which separate an “amateur” sound from a “professional" one. When creating a song, it’s important to apply a standard of quality in order to ensure you’re always creating songs that sound objectively good. Furthermore, we can use objective concepts to improve our subjective communication within our music to create better songs.

Objective Quality

Objective qualities are not influenced by opinion and rather by a form of measurement. In music, this measure is often determined by distribution, which is the spread of music to an audience. The end goal is to ensure that the music is able to contain the same quality it was created with when it reaches the listener in any environment.

Audio Distribution

With the invention of the internet, audio distribution has turned to audio file formats as a way to distribute music to many people. With each new communicative invention, it’s important to understand that the way audio is distributed may change as well. In the past there was sheet music, then the record player (vinyls), and eventually audio files.

High Bitrate Audio

High quality music has — at minimum — a sampling frequency of 44.1 kHz and 16-bit sample rate. A sampling frequency of 48 kHz and a 24-bit sampling rate is also common. This is because the limits of a human — bar an audio mutant — will be limited to around 20 kHz. Following this information, storing a frequency that’s greater than twice the maximum frequency of a signal allows us to reconstruct the original signal without loss. 

48 kHz is a frequency rate used often in audio for videos, but doesn’t necessarily improve sound quality on its own accord. For this reason, 44.1 kHz is an ideal sampling frequency, while 48 kHz can be considered overkill. In a similar manner, a higher sampling rate (bitrate) can hold more data and increase the dynamic range of the sound. As a result, a 16-bit sample rate is adequate for the human ear, and 24-bits guarantees the recreation of a signal (sound) without loss in dynamic range.

16-bit 44.1 kHz files were widely adopted as the use of the CD became widespread. The WAV (Waveform Audio File) format can contain CD quality sound on a file which is why it’s become the modern standard for music. With the advent of streaming, the devices audiences used to listen to music on would require hard drive space, and eventually the internet. In the past, limitations of hard drive space meant smaller files would be required in order to hold more songs on a device. A solution to this issue was the MP3 format, which is a compressed audio file format. Essentially, high quality audio files could be compressed into smaller sized (albeit less quality) MP3 files which could be used on devices such as the MP3 player.

The advent of streaming gave further use to compressed file formats due to the transfer of data over the internet being dependent on speed. Compressed files containing less space were able to be streamed at a faster rate than their uncompressed counterparts and result in less buffering. It’s common for streaming platforms to use MP3’s even with the massive improvements in hard drive space and bandwidth, due to the internet speed of the average user.

A high quality file can always be downsized, but a downsized file can NOT be upsized to the same quality. This is why it’s important to deal with high bitrate audio (i.e 16/24 bit 44.1 kHz WAV) while creating music. In doing so, the final product may be modified for the listener (compressed, etc.) while losing the least amount of quality.

Volume (Mastering)

To a certain extent, volume is objective: the listener is able to better recognize frequencies, thus enjoying the song more. It’s even been studied that loud music performs better among audiences. This phenomenon has resulted in music steadily gaining volume over time through methods such as dynamic range compression, and other mastering techniques. Due to the way audio files work, we need to work carefully with our audio files in order to make them louder without losing too much quality. This process is known as mastering.

Louder doesn't always mean better, and volume has its limits. When an amplifier is overdriven, it attempts to deliver a voltage beyond its maximum capability. Thus, clipping (distortion) may occur. This not only can damage the device, but also causes frequencies to be “clipped” away. It’s important to ensure sound isn’t clipped unless desired when it comes to recording, mixing, and mastering of a song.

Balance (Mixing)

While the outcome of mixing is subjective, the intent comes from an objective train of thought. A human can only focus on so many frequencies at once, so shaping them allows others to stand out. You can think of frequencies as a spectrum where bass is on the low end (0), and high pitched noise resides in the high end (20000). Each sound takes up certain frequencies, and together may take up the whole spectrum. Music with bass, mid, and high-frequency elements can be altered so that each element is given more or less focus. This can mean taking out the high end of a bassline to give the mid (i.e piano) more room, or vice-versa to make the bassline sound fatter.

In general, a “clean” mix will take an array of sounds and output them as a unit; many sounds will become one sound while still allowing each element to be heard. In contrast, a “muddy” mix results in a clash of frequencies making the original music and its ideas contain less quality. The mastering process aims to maintain this balance among sounds while making the coherent unit as loud as possible.

Subjective Quality

Subjective qualities are influenced by opinion and open to interpretation. In music, this measure is determined by the individual and their tastes. You can study a group of humans to identify subjective qualities present in every song they enjoy (objectivity), but it doesn't mean those qualities are inherently good. For this reason, there’s no "correct" way to address subjective qualities other than identifying them.

Furthermore, much of what you would consider to be subjective qualities can be broken down many times more. It’s your prerogative to focus on the progression of multiple drums, or the volume at which a single stick strikes. Due to this, it’d be impossible to list every subjective quality. Instead, you may focus on a “list” of qualities deemed important to a song.

It’s key to note that even though subjective qualities can be “listed”, this doesn't mean you can address them like a checklist. Oftentimes, music is made in spontaneity and the result contains each of these elements (rather than the other way around). Improvement aimed at a subjective quality may mean improving the skill used to express the quality. However, being good at individual qualities still doesn't mean you can piece a good song together. At the end of the day, each quality works with each other to create one entity known as a song.

Instrumentation

Production is the underlying rhythm and tones that accompany the vocals in a song. Since production can also be defined as "the creation of the song as a whole", I will refer to production in this context as the "beat (instrumental)". The beat is the engine of the song and carries it's emotion. There are numerous skills involved in the production of a beat.

Tone: Known as the genre of the beat and sets/assists the tone/emotion of the artist.

Drums: Drum patterns such as 808s, snares, hi-hats, percussion, fx’s which direct the drive of a beat.

Melody (and Melodic Elements): The sequence of notes that take the main attention of the beat and the instruments that assist the melody, but are not necessarily the main focus of the beat.

Structure: How the beat progresses from the introduction to the verse, chorus, bridge, outro and other arrangements.

Variation: Variation of each instrument to create a similar (recognizable) but different sound while still keeping the beat’s structure.

Transitions: Sounds such as FX or equalizing that create build-ups and breakdowns as the beat transitions from one idea to the next.

Effects: Effects on certain instruments/instrumental as a whole that make the beat sound different.

Lyrics

Lyrics allow the listener to find patterns which relate to them via language, or hear the story that the artist is presenting.

Meaning: How well the lyric invokes an emotion in the listener. It’s important to consider the audience listening. A song which contains "high quality" references and analogies (in the eyes of the creator) can be a bunch of nonsense when applied to a group who doesn’t understand those references (see relatability in a later section).

Words: Words assist in telling a story, building up a punchline, or even make a song unintelligible.

Rhymes: Allows lines to correspond with each other without underlying context.

Flow: How the artist says each word, including the note, enunciation, and EMPHASIS of each word.

Melody: The pitch and rhythm of each word in a sequence.

Vocals

Often referred to as an instrument on its own, the vocals can help convey emotion and/or add another element to the instrumentation.

Volume: The loudness of the vocal.

Tune: The note the pitch/tuning of the beat.

Timbre: The character of the vocal (i.e is the vocal clean or raspy, whiny or open, etc).

Emotion: How the artist expresses (in vocal form) what they are feeling.

Mixing

Mixing: Making the song sound good as a whole (beat, vocals, etc). Use of EQ, Compression, AutoTune, Delay, Reverb, FX and many other techniques to emphasize the vocal and instrumental elements.

Mastering 

Mastering: Making the song sound loud (due to scientific studies indicating consumers enjoy louder music) and providing the best listening experience on all platforms of distribution.

Emotion

Music isn’t an emotion, but we use emotion to describe music. Most create music with an underlying purpose, and that purpose, that emotion, is what your music should be aiming to invoke. If you create music for an audience, your music should invoke (in them) the emotions you want them to experience. In this way, you can measure your subjective quality based on emotional accuracy (what you wanted to convey vs. what the audience experienced). Furthering this thought process separates the subjective idea from the objective execution, which is important in improving our musical skills. Experiencing success or failure and falsely assigning each to an idea can result in steps backwards.

Relatability

A relatable song is able to make the listener feel as if they are experiencing a personal connection to an emotion. Instrumentation grants atmosphere, rhythm, and familiarity while lyrics help the listener pick up on language that describes them. Combined, these allow the listener to experience a setting and identity. People experience the world from their point of view, and — as a result — enjoy experiences which reflect their own. However, relatability in music is not straightforward. There are times where a listener prefers to hear a story from their perspective, and other times they want to imagine one dissimilar to theirs. Relatability has appeal on both extremes rather than a sweet spot.

In fact, there’s no sweet spot for any factor because if there was, all music would eventually sound the same (boring). Inverse thinking (of what not to do) gives us the conclusion that being “average” isn’t always advised when it comes to relatability. As a result, you should be specific and personal with your sound. Music is consumed in a variety of ways, so what’s “average” and how much it matters will change based on your cultural environment.

Perfection

While there’s no such thing as a perfect song, using these concepts as guidelines will help you get closer to creating a song that’s perfect to you. With music being subjective, it’s quality will be influenced by the sensations that differ per person. Considering these points, it’s important to understand where the songs you create come from. You are the one who ties everything together. You are the one who decides who the music is for. You are the one who decides what to convey.

With that being said, humans are most productive in groups and music is rarely an exception. Without people to create musical instruments (or musical notes), musicians wouldn’t be able to play modern music. A song with a drummer and no melody is interpreted differently compared to an instrumental with vocals. Whenever a song is created with commercial appeal in mind (for others, for a living, etc.) having more people allows you to consider more perspectives; adding more relatability and accuracy to an emotion. 

For some, this scenario presents a conflict of artistry because creating the perfect song (to them) means staying true to your original emotion. This can result in conflict if parties fail to compromise on proposed changes or feedback. It’s important for each party to understand the reason they are creating a song, so they are able to resolve these issues. If you are creating music for yourself, don’t be surprised if others don’t see its appeal. Rather, consider yourself fortunate if others do.

Creation of a Song

Music has been created throughout human history and is not limited in its reasons for being. That’s to say, every sound — whether to mark time, increase companionship, unite a group, make a remark, etc. — has been made for a reason. Due to this, there’s no direct or best or efficient way of creating music. There is no chicken (music) without the egg (idea), but who is to say the egg didn’t come from a “chicken” before it?

Music can be made in any way, but the general consensus to creating a song in modern times is to create the idea (written or recorded), objectively record the idea, mix the record, and master the mix. After this, the song would be prepared for distribution (and promoted) but that’s beyond the scope of this document. Each songwriting method has its own advantages and disadvantages. Understanding the merits of each allows you to make a better decision to fulfill your music's purpose.

Songwriting

In the context of the creative process, songwriting methods are used to assist with the communication of an idea. Methods evolve with technology, and what once was communicated orally or through sheet music can now be communicated via record. There is never an ideal method (but one may benefit certain musical factors), and the best way to create music will depend on the individual/group creating it. Oftentimes, it’s a mix of each. Some methods used to create music are provided below.

Written

Writing is a form of memory which allows us to recall a thought. Most music is written, but this specific method focuses on writing first. Using a piece of paper or digital variant lets us write down phrases to recite later. This is similar to using memory — albeit harder — which involves memorizing a song (as if it was written). Most artists start creating music using the written method. Fewer use the memory-based variant (written in the mind) as it's hard (for a human) to memorize a full song without using written words. The written method allows more control over what's being created compared to an improvised piece that is created in the moment. It may also result in ideas that may not come naturally.

Improvised

Creating music "in the moment" or "live" is an alternative to the written method. Phrases, melodies, and flows can be recorded via improvisation. A spontaneous execution is able to capture the emotion of a track that may be lost should a track be recorded off a written. Furthermore, ideas which otherwise wouldn't be recorded using a written method (due to written patterns or fundamentals) are able to be considered and tested.

Punch In

A punch-in recording takes advantage of advances in technology, which allow us to easily rewrite a stream of audio. Punch recording is a technique you can use to overwrite a portion of a previously recorded track, during playback, without touching any of the recording before or after that portion. Recording a line, pausing the recording, and then re-recording the line (to fix it) is an example of punch recording. The punch-in method is a mixed method; using aspects of the written and improvised methods. Phrases are created in spontaneity, then reviewed in the recording playback (written record). Punching-in can provide the best of both worlds of the written and improvised method: Emotion is captured in the moment and edited during the process. However, changing the overall theme of a track may be harder.

Derivative

The derivative songwriting method involves the use of prior works (samples) to build or base a track on. While all music is derivative in some form, this method starts with another track in mind, then uses other methods to build upon it. This method is analytical in nature. Hit songs are often based upon prior works (samples) which have performed well at the time of their release. This is one of the main reasons why record labels opt to own songwriting copyrights, so that artists under the label can reuse sounds or phrases from the original "hit" legally.

Producer

The producer method involves the selection of an amount of tracks and altering them. Artists play the role of an executive producer by taking a body of work and tying it into another (album, performance, brand, etc). This method is used often by pop stars, performers, and/or large artists who maintain an expectation to provide high quality music with a high output. Artists who originally begin creating music themselves (and possibly for others) may end up using a variant of this method to appeal to consumer demand.

The Importance of Marketing

Marketing is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services to an audience. In this case, marketing is the advertising of music from its creation to its listeners. Marketing — like music — can’t be simplified in a simple manner. However, the difference between an amateur and a professional artist with similar music often comes down to marketing.

What is the Most Important Quality of Music?

If I were to give advice (at any point of failure to create music sustainably), the answer to this question would be marketing. Imagine two songs, one a common lullaby and the other new and modern. While the modern song may be processed better and contain various musical elements; one could argue the simple lullaby to be the better song. If you were to measure lasting impact, the simple yet common tune would prevail. In this scenario, it doesn't matter if the "best song" in the world is only heard by one person because it has no lasting impact. The song's purpose — unless it was “not being heard” — won't be carried out beyond those aware of the song.

The reason marketing is the most important quality of a song is because it determines the purpose of the song to the creator and the listener. If you only make music for yourself, then a lack of marketing shows that you don’t care for the lasting impact a song may have. Instead, you focus on other qualities of your music to determine whether you are making quality music. This isn't positive or negative, but simply shows what qualities of music are important to you.

The audience also demonstrates which qualities of a song are important. Whether the song is pitched to change lives, push a narrative or make money, there exists certain qualities that help the song achieve its purpose. As a result, the sounds that listeners choose to listen to become a frame of reference to quality, rather than the artist determining the qualities themselves. There are other implications...

Is marketing actually part of a song? No. Can an artist determine the most important quality of music based on their market? Yes.

Objectivity in Music

Songs are only objective to a certain extent, so there isn't an absolute way to judge how "good" a song is. In reality, a song only sounds good because the human mind deems it that. Due to this, any objective measure you take to determine the quality of a song is a construct. Just as we assign words to certain objects, and determine that 5 + 6 = 11 in (base 10) math, we assign notes and scales to create a set of rules that "good" music follows: This is the basis of music theory. There’s a reason why randomly mashing the keys on a piano does NOT produce "better" music than those based on scales. This is because humans base notes and scales on "good" sounding frequencies rather than the notes being provided by frequencies themselves.

Phenomenon such as these is why you can use a method-of-sorts to create a song which adheres to a genre. Taking certain characteristics enjoyed by an audience let’s us objectify subjective qualities (to a certain extent) because that's what a genre is; a characterization of similar sounds.

It’s statistically known that higher volume songs produce more appreciation. Thus, a song that wants to appease listeners may consider this a quality to be important. In addition, certain scales of notes are perceived to be better than others. In this case, scale is also a quality of music which should be weighed against the others. In any case, marketing determines where these qualities stack against each other.

Due to the above, there is never a logical way to determine if a song is absolutely better than another. You may argue that those who receive the most views and appraisal for their works are the best artists, but the issue is that those metrics have little to do with the music itself. In fact, it’s very common for wealth to supersede the quality of music when it comes to the success of an artist. Record Labels funnel millions into one's works in an effort to be considered "the best", but metrics that make one "the best" are minutely dependent on their music.

Classical music is highly renowned as music that has lasted through the ages. However, for you to argue it better than another is nonsense. Who is to say that, of the millions of communities in a secluded world with horrid standards of communication (from a modern perspective), a style of music made with sheets and pianos were the best? What is more likely is that classical music was better noted than others (given the history of note creation) and thus passed along generations easily. In this case, it was not the popularity of classical music that made it so good, but it's archives that allowed it to be remembered.

Metrics such as popularity are manipulative when determining the best genres. Considering that most children follow the preferences of their parents, the "best genres" would then be those of the generation that precedes the children. If you want to consider the best songs or genres as the most remembered or popular, that’s up to you. However, doing this is objectively nonsense since these metrics are disconnected from the music and its qualities.

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