Critiquing Music

I used to write for an ancient website called "epinions".  It actually still exists but became irrelevant once social networking really took off.  My username was Fartzarellah for any who are interested.  Anyways, many of the music reviews written there were too vague to be helpful so I decided to write an article on how people could make their reviews better by being more specific, analyzing exactly what it is that they like or do not like about the music they are reviewing.  A lot of the information here is pretty basic, but I think I did a pretty good job of summing up the different aspects of music.  Since we have a music dissection category here, I thought this might be helpful to some.  It is more focused on reviewing albums but can mostly be applied to critiquing compositions as well.  Here ya go.

 

 

 

"The Bottom Line Trying to untangle the enigma that is liking and disliking.

Writing about music can be a daunting task. The most common way to listen is to let the music wash over you in a wave. There is nothing wrong with listening in this manner, but you have to be more analytical to effectively tell others why you love it or hate it. Here is a checklist of things to consider. Don't feel you always have to mention every single one. Each of these elements may or may not be important to you depending on the context.

Production/Arrangement

Is the music clear and crisp? Is it muddy? Is there too much going on? Is there a sparse, elegant arrangement? Does the sound bring a specific era to mind? If so, do you like that era?

Timbre/Tone Quality

Does the singer have a deep, resonant voice? Sweet and subtle? Nasally and annoying? Do the drums sound raw and unpolished? Are the guitars loaded with effects? Does the bass sound like a bouncing rubber band?

Lyrics

Are the lyrics profound? Moving? Pretentious? Uninspired? Silly? Simple and direct? Deep and complex? Humorous? Funny even? Ironic? Sardonic? Laconic? Angry? Provide an example or two to back up your claims.

Melody

Does the melody make you want to sing along? Is it overly repetitious? Is it flowing and beautiful? Is it rambling and non-sensical? Is it rigid? Does it ascend? descend? Does it spin off into the heavens?

Harmony

Does the music use simple power chords? Major and minor chords? Is the key major or minor? Is it a-tonal? Jazzy chords? Predictable changes? Unexpected changes? If you are not familiar with chord names or keys, that is fine. You could use the power of association and memory instead to tell us how the chords make you feel.

Rhythm

Does it make you tap your toes? Wag your head? Pound your fist? Beat up the neighbors? Is it Fast? Slow? Somewhere in between? Standard rock beat? Country beat? Dance beat? Disco beat? Rumba?

Note: Rhythm may be the greatest determining factor of style

Instrumental performances

Does the guitar player suck? Is the singer out of tune? Is the singer amazing? Is the guitar playing impressive? Does a bad performance seem oddly appropriate, or a good one strangely out of place?

Format

Is it a 12-bar blues? Is it a standard pop song (verse-bridge-chorus)? Is it through-composed (no section repetitions, classical in scope)? Does it fade out? Does it end abruptly? Is it long? Is it short?

Complexity/Simplicity

Too simple? Too complex? Dazzlingly complex? Simple and direct?

Unity/Diversity

Is the music all over the place? Does it sit in one tidy little spot? Does it go too far? Does it sit there like a boring old fart?

Style

This category can often be used to sum up the others and makes your task much easier. Is it Punk? Reggae? Funk? Alternative? Death-Metal? Bubblegum? Jazz? Hip-Hop? Trip-Hop? Classical? Baroque? An odd amalgam? Industrial? Cuban? Etc.?

Note: If you are writing about an obscure style, make sure to provide a definition. I have read a number of reviews that were well written but left me scratching my head concerning what "Nu punko body flip" music is.

Social Significance

Was/is this ground breaking music? Does it speak for a generation? Does it speak badly for a generation? Is it commercial garbage? Is it commercial genius? Is it indie garbage? Is it indie genius?

Memories

If there is some sort of nostalgic or horrendous or whatever image that the music brings to mind, please share. There are many occasions where I may like or dislike music based solely on associations the music draws up. For example, I can't stand the song "Don't Bring Me Down" by E.L.O. because I got horribly car sick when I was three or four and that song just happened to be playing on the radio. If I were to write a review saying I hated it because of the melody, production, etc., I would be lying. Be aware of your biases (like it or not, we all have them) and let the reader know what they are.

Emotional Content

This is probably the single most important aspect. All of the others feed into it. What could possibly be more important than how the music makes you feel? However, you need the "technicalities" to back up your claims. Like I said in the introduction, you don't need to mention every category every time, just the significant ones.

Putting it all Together

The categorization here is necessarily a bit rigid. Otherwise, there would be no such thing as categories. In reality, lyrics, production, melody, etc. all exist at the same time and aren't really separate from one another. The best reviews bring the relevant "categories" together into a nice tidy package for the reader.

The trick is to avoid losing the forest for the trees, while at the same time proving that you have a legitimate forest made up of real trees here. In other words, try to achieve a truly holistic viewpoint that takes reductionism into account. God is in the details, but the details are nothing without God. And so on.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know if I'm missing any categories here."

 

Oh, I did think of one other important category to be aware of:

 

Aunthorship

 

Do you like the person who posted the music?  Do you think that person is a dork?  Has this person left a positive comment on one of your pieces so you feel like you should return the favor?  Did this person tear your piece a new one?

 

heh heh.

 

 

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Replies

  • Ha, I forgot all about this post.  A fun little piece of writing I think, to do with what you will. It is more focused on describing music than critiquing now that I read it again. 

    I think you can account for taste to a certain extent.  Its a challenge to figure out why you like something or not.  Some things I like are probably just because they remind me of a certain time in my life, which may not be a "valid" reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.

  • Man, I wanted to write on this topic since some people lack the ability to give a good critique.  I find people who say it was horrible and don't give specifics as highly suspicious people.  Who goes around saying that piece of music is awful and doesn't back it up details sounds as if they tear down other composers for fun....

     

  • I think all art criticism must be based upon a shared set of criteria and values between the critic and the reader. The artist,  in our case the composer, need not be part of this contract. It is for the artist to create that which he/she is compelled to create and it is for critics, public, audience etc. to make a judgement or simply to like or dislike it.

    Certain people's opinions I , as  a composer might value very highly if I looked up to and respected their knowledge, judgement or achievements in my field. Other people's views I may disregard  if I believe them to have no understanding of what I am trying to do.

    The critic must fully understand the medium, the style the language and the aim of a work of art in order to give an opinion worth regarding. Only then can it be more than the most subjective and superficial reaction.

     

    Composers are, and probably have to be, the most subjective and prejudiced critics of all because they hear music in their own special inner world.

    Tchaikovsky called Brahms a "giftless bastard" 

    Well now, in my humble opinion Tchaik was a dazzling orchestrator and melodist but Brahms was by far the greater architect and symphonist.  Anyway, I'm sure if either of them were alive they wouldn't give a flying fugatto  for my opinion!

     Also, I find it troubling that some composers in this forum actually lump Beethoven, Danny Elfman and Jimi Hendrix together under the same umbrella  of 'composer' ( if you can lump under an umbrella) when in reality those three luminaries have three completely different skills, aims and belong in different lineages. 

     

     

  • Hi Ray. 

    I witnessed it myself.  The mature composer gave a bad critique, " I don't like it."  That was it... I was disappointed by the bad critique since the composer was knowledgeable yet gave a useless critique.  There were no details and there was evidence of bad grammar! 

    Ray Kemp said:

    Ann,

    Do you say this because it happened to you or because you've witnessed it happening to others?

    Either way, it's still only one person voicing an opinion which can simply be ignored.

     

    Critiquing Music
    I used to write for an ancient website called epinions .  It actually still exists but became irrelevant once social networking really took off.  My…
  • Just read this list and think its very helpful so thanks. It helps someone like me who doesnt have an extensive background in theory and the periods of music etc to break things down a bit when trying to 'make sense' of what im hearing. Some good pointers there. Thanks.
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