A How-To-Guide for Writing Music Criticism:
Music criticism, according to the Oxford Companion to Music (a music reference book produced by the Oxford University Press) is defined as: “the intellectual activity of formulating judgments on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres.” Because interest in music has become so popular in the advancing technological world we live in today, music criticism has come to acquire the basic meanings of journalistic reporting, particularly on musical performances.
Winton Dean, an English musicologist of the 20th century, noted that music is especially difficult to criticize in relation to other art forms. Music is written in a language unique to its own kind. In other words, the musical note C, for instance, has no explicit relations to love, journey, peace, or other abstract notions or ideas that music works to portray. Additionally, music can be recreated and reinterpreted, making it a dynamic art form, rather than one that is static.
If you’ve never critiqued a piece or pieces of music before in your life, do not despair. I have broken it down for you:
First, consider these questions when critiquing music:
- What was your overall reaction to the performance?
- What was the strongest element of the performance?
- What was the weakest element of the performance?
- Was the event well-organized? Was there any element of the performance that detracted from your concentration or enhanced it?
- If the performance is vocal, how did the text correspond with the music? Did the music communicate the text effectively?
- If the performance was purely instrumental, what visual images and/or emotions might have been conveyed by the music? Did the music communicate effectively?
- If there was a conductor, did you feel the conductor communicated his or her interpretation of the music to the players and the audience?
Now, let me break it down for you even further, with eight easy steps to keep in mind as you are answering these questions:
1. Decide what sort of music you’ll offer critiques on.
First, set parameters for yourself. What genres of music will you critique (Rock & Roll, Jazz, Folk, Metal, Hip-Hop, Pop)? All genres are open to criticism! While some online bloggers have “listening blogs” through which they listen to and critique a multiplicity of genres at once, others prefer to critique one specific genre at a time.
2. Form an opinion before saying it out loud.
As you listen to a song or other piece of musical art, avoid expressing your opinion about it while you listen. You should refrain from doing so because your opinion on the piece may change multiple times before it ends. Wait until you have listened attentively before saying or writing/blogging about how you feel.
3. Refrain from presenting yourself as an expert on musical techniques.
For those of you who aren’t musicians, you might find it hard to avoid pretending you are. If you want to refer to a professional musician’s skill or talent, make sure you do so in an opinionated manner. Rather than saying, “He’s not that good of a piano player,” you may want to say, “Personally, I like how Pianist 1 plays piano over Pianist 2.” This allows others to contest your opinions, and allows for further discussion.
4. Use your knowledge of similar music.
Draw connections between musical groups, songs, musical genres, instrument sounds, etc. when you notice they exist. This will help validate your opinion in the eyes of others who might not be familiar with the particular music piece you are critiquing, but instead are familiar with alternative, similar pieces. Drawing these similarities will also boost your credibility in the music world, and prove you are generally knowledgeable about a particular genre/style/instrument/group.
5. Do your homework.
Read other music reviews in the same genre you are critiquing. It might be helpful to get a second, third, and even fourth opinion from people who have done similar critiques in the past. Also, if you play an instrument that is prevalent in the genre you are critiquing in, play it on your own time! Producing and listening to your own music can help you to become even more familiar with the tone, pace, harmonic techniques and other existing aspects of the musical piece you are critiquing.
6. Contact people, if possible!
Don’t be afraid to contact the musician of the piece you are critiquing, whether it is someone you have met before, or a complete stranger that lives on the other side of the country. Ask questions, conduct interviews, and find out information that may help you better critique the piece you are studying.
7. Encourage others to discuss the music with you.
Generate open discussions with others in the music world. By talking out your opinions with people who understand how music is written and produced, you may notice and learn new things about a particular song, band, or performance. Open discussions allow for agreement and disagreement… but don’t be afraid, because both can be good!
8. Recommend your favorites.
How does word and opinions about music spread? You! Recommend your favorite bands and songs to others, publish your criticisms, and get other people talking about your work and critiques. Word of mouth is what allows the world of music to exist, how connections among music-lovers are maintained, and how musical criticism stays alive!
Examples of Music Criticism:
- Album Reviews Published on the BBC News Website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/reviews/latest
- Model of Concert Critique for National Symphony Orchestra: http://www.howardcc.edu/academics/academic_divisions/arts_and_humanities/instructional/musc/dowenconcertcritique.pdf
- Critique of Holding My Breath by Jon McLaughlin: http://www.teenink.com/reviews/music_reviews/article/588336/Holding-My-Breath-by-Jon-McLaughlin/