A couple years ago in Conservatory, I showed a song I had written, "Paper Dolls", to two different professors. In both situations, the song had to be critiqued.
The first professor I showed it to said the song didn't have enough space, and told me where I should add an instrumental bar. I wound up using his suggestion.
The second professor's response was that the song had too much space, and he suggested how I could cut bars and extend vocal lines to fill some of it up.
Now, both of these professors I love and respect, but there was no way I could have taken both of their feedback. Their suggestions cancel each other out. So what was I supposed to do? Who is right? is what I kept asking myself.
Personally, I love space in music, or "breathing room" as I like to call it. I like to savor every melodic line like a piece of fine chocolate, and I need time for it to melt in my mouth. Some people, however, prefer to just chew right through their truffles. It was only a few months ago when it dawned on me. I couldn't call one of my professors right and the other wrong because they both have different aesthetics.
Aesthetic is a snooty-sounding but very important concept. World English Dictionary defines aesthetic as "a principle of taste or style adopted by a particular person, group, or culture" and gives "the Bauhaus aesthetic of functional modernity" as an example. The idea is that what is beautiful to one person may not be beautiful to another, and if two people love the same piece of art, they share at least one similar aesthetic, or taste.
So, getting back to my professors - the first who heard my song critiqued it according to the "less is more" aesthetic, which is less about being busy and more about clarity, conciseness and "breathing room" (hence us both wanting more space in the song), while my other professor was very into the "more is more" aesthetic; he loved Demi Lovato's music for being "over the top on purpose" as he put it. His aesthetic is why he was craving more activity and less space in my song. Less is More versus More is More. Early Avril Lavigne versus Radio Disney. Classical versus Baroque. It would lead you to a dead end to try to prove one superior, because it's all about preference.
Becoming aware of my personal aesthetics and the aesthetics of my preferred genres was the most directional thing to happen to me as a songwriter. Making decisions became easy once I knew what I wanted and why I wanted it. My gut knew I wanted more space in the song, but becoming aware of the elements of my taste allowed me to consciously confirm what I knew inside.
At Conservatory, there was always this looming idea that certain pieces of music were inherently better than others regardless of personal taste. I think that's partly true, but I felt like people were pushing the idea way too much. The more I work on music, the more I realize that there really is very little that universally applies to all styles and songs, and personal taste is more important than critics want us to think. I'll favor a song where lyrics are sung with the accents on the words as we speak them over a song that is "better" in three other ways but fails to do just that one thing. That's because natural sounding lyric pronunciation is of high importance according to my song elements value system. And I love a melody that moves mostly stepwise with only a few leaps, because that sounds natural to me, like how someone would speak. But someone with a more theatrical aesthetic may be bored with the melodies I like; he may crave more leaps because he enjoys the exaggeration of the character. Neither of us in this situation would be correct. Neither of us would have a higher knowledge of universal truth or some other philosophical crap.
You can only judge a piece according to your aesthetic, and if you want to get objective, only to the aesthetic the piece is going for. If the writer got his or her intended message across to the people who buy into the same aesthetic, the piece was successful.
I still support the idea of being trained in the arts because it is important to be able to think about what you're doing consciously and critically, but you should use that knowledge to create something that is beautiful to you (or to whomever you're creating the art for) according to the desired aesthetic. Luckily, both my professors understood this and never tried to force feedback. I only wish I had realized that sooner, rather than try to figure out who was "right." But some people are critical where they are not entitled. If anyone tries to tell you that Pat Metheny is scientifically better than Alanis Morissette, or that Nirvana's In Utero is inherently better than Avril Lavigne's first album, or that less space is better than more space, keep in mind it really is just their opinion.