Robert Estrin - piano expert

What Makes Great Music "Great"?

Learn a simple concept which makes music become great

In this video, Robert tackles a deep subject with a simple concept that will help you understand what makes music "great."

Released on July 6, 2016

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin. The question today is a very heady one. What makes great music? And you might think, "How could I possibly tackle a subject like that?" Because it really is an enormous subject. Well, to throw a monkey wrench into this, I'm going to take it one step further and say, what is art? Because what makes great music is the same thing, the same fundamental question about what is art, and what makes something art compared to what is not considered art. This is a timeless question, and I'm going to give you some idea of how to get your head around why Mozart was so great, but then so many of his contemporaries are long since forgotten. What's the difference between Mozart and Hummel? And not to knock Hummel, by the way, some of his pieces I love. But anyway.

Well, the fundamental thing is this. Whether it's reading a novel, watching a motion picture, listening to a piece of music, looking at a painting, it's all setting up expectations. Think about it. Let's take a play or a book. You're reading along. Now, just imagine you're reading this book and you go, "Oh, I know what's gonna happen next," and boom, it happens. Same thing with a piece of music. You're listening to a piece of music, you go, "Oh yeah, and it's gonna go there," and it goes right there. Everything goes exactly where you expect it to. Well, you know what? That can become boring. When you can predict everything, you tune out. Because you know it's coming, it's like, okay... Nothing more disappointing than going to a film and you're looking forward to it, and you go in there and the first 20 minutes you figure out what you think's gonna happen, and two hours later you find out it did. And you walk out going, "Boy, all I got from that was popcorn." You know? Same thing with a piece of music. Any piece of music that is completely predictable is going to bore you silly.

Now, what's the flip-side of this? The flip-side is the other extreme. Composers who try to be as random as possible. And there's a whole school of composition based upon this premise, expressionism and serialized music, that tries to randomize all the elements. Well, there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, the universe, some people consider it to be orderly, some people consider to be random. So you could take it any way you like. But the bottom line is our human brains...if everything is random in a piece of music, or in a film, or a piece of art that just looks like a bunch of squiggly lines on a canvas, you can't make sense of it. It's very hard. It's not memorable to you because it's just too much information that you can't relate. So these are the two extremes.

The magic of a great musical composition, or a great book, or play, or film, or work of art of any sort, is setting up expectations and then either surprising you radically or in a subtle way. Mozart, for example, you go along, you think you know where it's gonna go, and then just at a certain point it goes, ahh. Just a little bit of a nuance on a phrase that, "How did you think of that?" You know? And it just really feels good. A lot of Beatles songs are that way. It goes along and you think it's gonna be the same old, but no, it surprises you. Either in the chorus or in the bridge, it'll be something. Or the whole structure might be not what you would expect.

So, the whole element of surprise. Beethoven was more of the radical surprise type. Going along and just when you think it's safe to listen to the music, it's like, whaa? Where are we now? It keeps you engaged. So that balance between randomness and order is ultimately the foundation for art, in my opinion. I'd love to get other opinions on this, because this is a vast subject, and this is only one facet. I don't mean to simplify all of art and music in one capsulation of one idea. There's a lot more to it than that. But to me, that's the essential element that all great art and music has in common. Thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on July 9, 2016 @3:42 am PST
Hi Mr Estrin, I'm actually surprised there's no debate at all. First of course, I like Hummel's music, and of course it's not boring at all, but I can see your point, in general it's much closer to the classical conventions of his time.
Yet you're right, I don't play any Hummel pieces on a regular basis, while I do try to play Mozart's piano sonatas, and its fun to do. Sometimes I put the book away for a year, but I'll always come back. All of this pieces have something that make you come back, even nr 16 sonata facile, very different from nr 8 where very deep feelings are being expressed, and nearly gets romantic in style.
I think your definition is quite right, the notion of "surprise me" makes the difference between an ordinary daily object or painting or music, and something that makes you stop and look or listen. Innovation, lateral thinking, call it what you like, but there's always the notion of "oh I'd never thought of doing it this way". Satie, Cesar Franck, Philipp Glass all came up with ideas that make in fact quite easy and readable scores (not always easy to play well though, just like Bach or Mozart) but are full of new and personal ways to assemble notes into a coherent music with a lot of mood and spirit. Discovery and rediscovery is what's it all about, feeling you're lead off the beaten tracks, and still can find your way around when the piece ends.


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