My music criticism course

The fall moves onward. I’ve relaunched my blog, my website (need to do a little work on it!), and my book.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw -- my favorite classical music critic

And today my Juilliard course started. This is a graduate course about music criticism that I’ve been teaching for many years. You can read the same course overview the students get, and the same class schedule. On which you’ll find all the assignments, with links, so you can sample the reading and listening the students will do.

I have to say that the response I got to this on Facebook really warmed my heart. Students who took the course said how much they’d liked it. And others wished they’d taken a course like this. One critic I’ve known for ages (are we really that old, Peter?), who’s now a teacher, asked if he could use a guide I wrote on how to write a review. I wrote it with only my students in mind. Hadn’t expected anyone to say they hadn’t seen anything like it.

Critics and criticism — big topics. I always begin any course I teach by asking the students why they’re interested in taking it, and the response this time included both some skepticism about critics, and some thoughts about what musicians can learn from them. One student wonders if it’s even possible to describe music in words, which he’s certainly not the first one to question.

If you follow the links, you’ll see that we read George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, as well as the critics writing now for the New York Times.  Each week, one student brings in a Times review, and discusses it. (I’ve also encouraged them to bring my wife’s reviews from the Washington Post. Promising to hear any criticisms of her with a completely open mind!)

We also read rock and jazz reviews, and, above all, we work on the simple — or not so simple — act of talking about music.

So here’s what I think was the main thing I did in class today. I played a piece in a highly unusual style, that it’s unlikely any of the students would know. And I asked them to describe what they heard. (I’m not saying what the piece was, because I’m likely to use it again, and want to be sure the students are surprised.)

Because they don’t know the music, they start from square one in describing it. A good exercise! Among much else, it was fascinating to see how the students said both objective things, and subjective things — they’d describe the sound of the piece, for instance, but one student started by saying he liked it, and another started by saying it frightened him.

One lesson in that: to be useful, a review — or a simple description of the piece, of the kind you might make if you talked to a friend — has to be both objective and subjective. You won’t get far if you don’t describe some simple facts, like whether the piece was fast or slow, loud or soft, repetitious or highly varied. What did it sound like?

But then, having stated all that, your readers (or your friend) will want to know what you thought of it. Especially if the piece sounds really unusual. “Never heard anything like that before! Did you like it?”

And a really good critic — a really good writer — finds ways to mix the objective and subjective comments together, so you get a unified view of what the experience of hearing the piece was really like.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Good luck with this, Greg. You are a torch bearer for music and for the next generation of musicians. I remember vividly my Music Criticism course taught by Irving Kolodin. Learned so much, mostly about how we can be deceived in our own opinions. He played a recording of a singer performing an aria. Then he played another one. He asked which was better, and why. Every brilliant colleague including myself fell into the trap. We compared and criticized, and guess what–they were both Maria Callas’ recordings–one from her early career, the second from her latter career. Shows how one’s voice can indeed change over the course of a lifetime.

  2. anne fennell says

    Greg, this is fabulous. I teach music composition classes at a dual magnet high school (4 levels of music composition exist at this point) and with every composition the students are required to describe their pieces and/or those of their peers’ (3rd person objective point of view), incorporating the elements of music and praxis of composition. The HUGE challenge is just getting the facts without the opinion – and using academic language. Once this is mastered we then focus on their opinions, substantiated by the facts, or what lead them to create this opinion. I will be sharing your article with my 9th-11th grade students (we have no seniors yet) and let them know that these skills WILL and CAN take them to higher learning and employment! Thank you!

  3. Steve Ledbetter says

    Greg, are you by any chance familiar with an article that consists largely of the letters sent to Virgil Thomson by his editor when he first started concert reviewing? I forget the exact title, but it was by John Vinton and appeared in his book “Essays After a Dictionary” (1977). I think it is one of the wisest and most informative courses of instruction in reviewing for a general newspaper–because that was really the editor’s intent, getting Thomson to write the kind of review that readers of the Herald Tribune would be inerested in–that I have ever seen.

    I just tried to find it in my library, but I think it must have gotten misshelved after my last move, because I can’t put my hands on it. But I strongly recommend it.

    • says


      I know in a general way about Thomson and his editor, but had no idea that these letters were available. I’d love to see them. Especially since I teach Thomson in my course. I’ll look for the book. Thanks!