Talking about music more

Talking about musicSuch an endless subject, how to talk about music. But also something we can all make progress on. There are so many things to say about how to do it well.

Here’s something I wrote to one of my Facebook friends, Ana Cervantes:

I think there are four things to emphasize in teaching how to write about music. First, being very clear and honest and personal about what you hear. Second, talking about music — describing music with speech. Much more direct than writing! Third, reading good writing about music. Which isn’t necessarily by music critics. Fourth, doing some writing. And I forgot a fifth thing to do — learn how to write! The better a writer someone is, the better they’ll write about music.

And the best writers, generally speaking, aren’t music critics.

Another guideline, very important to me: Don’t make a review a list of likes and dislikes. “First they played Brahms, and I loved it because…Then they played Shostakovich, and I didn’t find that so convincing…”

Instead, tell a story about the concert, and your presence at it. What happened? What happened to you, as a listener? What’s the main impression you came away with? Build your review around that main impression, and tack on the details — and evaluations — as you tell the story.

The concert seemed a little scattered. First they played Brahms, and I thought they focused very intently on the details of the music. Couldn’t quite tell what they thought the piece meant, though, because… [and here follow evocative details, that both bring the performance alive in your writing, and also ground your criticism in something concrete].

Next they played Shostakovich [of course you’re going to give the names of the pieces, but I’m leaving that out here, to get to the meat of things]. And here I didn’t think they grasped the details of the music at all. Things didn’t seem focused, as they had in the Brahms, because… [more vivid details]. They did, though, seem to have a quite definite idea of what Shostakovich was up to [still more vivid details]. But I can’t say their idea — if I grasped it correctly — made any sense to me, because… [more details].

So you see why I thought the concert was scattered. Sometimes they focused, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they had some deeper idea, sometimes they didn’t. And when they did seem to have a deeper idea, it didn’t seem to make any sense.

Even their presence on stage seemed scattered. When they weren’t playing, they looked awkward, as if they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Then, when they played, their body language got much more intense. They looked much more centered. Then the piece would finish, and they looked lost again.

They’re a talented group…[another detail or two]. But I’d say they have lots of rethinking to do.

One last point. I think a vivid description of the concert — in both objective and subjective terms, as I stressed in my last post — means a lot more than the critic’s thumbs up or thumbs down. If we’re going to trust the critic’s opinion, we have to know where that opinion came from. Which we’ll get from the vivid description.

The greatest praise I could give a review might be this: The critic described the concert with such power, in such unforgettable detail, that I’m ready to form my own opinion. The critic didn’t like what she heard, but based on the marvelous way she evoked what the concert was like, I’m ready to say that I would have loved it.


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


  1. says

    Thanks for your great post on your music criticism class. It is vitally important for all musicians to learn how to speak intelligently and intelligibly about their music as a way of engaging audiences and inspiring them to want to hear more classical music. I plan on using your idea of speaking both objectively and subjectively about the music in my own class at Yale School of Music next semester on Creating Sustainable Careers in the Arts. Our goal is to keep classical music alive and thriving so I am glad to see that we are on the same page!