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Words that should be banned from music (and sports) reviews

A personal irritation with the abuse of ‘sublime’ during BBC commentary of the Djokovic -Murray tennis final has led to a broader conversation on critical terms that are widely misused by reporters of both classical music and spectator sports.

Here’s a short-list of terms, mostly adverbs, that I would ban altogether.

- sublime (OED: … distinguished by elevation or size or nobility or grandeur)

- achingly (OED: continuous or prolonged dull pain)

- played winningly (who won?)

- eminently (OED: exalted, distinguished) satisfying

- committed (if the player isn’t, why the hell is s/he being paid?)

More, perhaps, to follow. Feel free to add your own.


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  1. In the case of ‘winningly’ I’d say that the performers have won the affection or admiration of the audience.

  2. As a lighting designer, I would heartily endorse a moratorium on “effective”.

    • As a composer I’d do the same for “interesting”! (Although I freely admit this is usually code for “I didn’t understand it, I didn’t like it, I never want to hear it again, please don’t let’s talk about it any more”)

  3. Any post-concert (or indeed post-match) interview question that begins “How do you feel…” should be banned and any interviewer using such a pointless question should be found an alternative position sorting paperclips. Particularly guilty is the otherwise quite charming Katie Derham…

    e.g. I saw her back stage at the Proms interviewing someone who’d just played some concerto or other and there were 3000 people cheering and giving a standing ovation demanding the performer to take yet another bow. Cue Katie, “You’ve just performed the [insert concerto here], how do you feel?” The sweating performer gave the usual worthy answer but ought to have pointed back to the stage entrance, where you could clearly hear all the applause, and said “how do you think I bloody feel?!?”

    The other thing Katie Derham does (and she isn’t alone in this) that winds me up no end is to introduce something with “this is some of the most…” or “…one of the greatest ever…” etc etc. I don’t know if she writes it herself or what, but it comes across as so lazy and patronising! It isn’t an episode of Record Breakers! And do we really need to be breathlessly told yet again that Beethoven was one of the GREATEST COMPOSERS WHO EVER LIVED!

    • I would endorse the reduction of superlatives connected with any orchestra or player. Each and every player and each and every band claim to be ‘world-class’ ‘the greatest’, etc etc… Nobody seems cognizent of the fact that they can’t ‘all’ be the best.

      I would also encourage requoting the entire phrase used by a critic who is using a superlative with an orchestra or player. An example of a statement is Alex Ross’ statement about the MO in one of their Carnegie Hall concerts. That concert happened to occur on a night of very bad weather in NYC , if I recall correctly, and he was delighted to experience, despite the weather, such a wonderful concert.

      What Ross actually said was, in so many words, that for that one night the MO was, or seemed to be, the best orchestra in the world. The MO publicity machine continues to crank out the misstatement that Ross gave the MO a blanket statement as being ‘the best orchestra in the world.” Not quite the same thing.

      And for those of us who have lived with and agonized over the range of MO performances throughout the years, we are well aware that they can play fantastically well on the right occasion and with the right conductor. However, some of us tend to heave a sigh of relief when they do…

      • Actually, there is a deli in my neighborhood that has a banner advertising its pastrami sandwich as the best in NYC. A friend has warned me that they all say that, but do you know what? It is the best……..almost.

  4. This reminds me a little of one of the most pointless questions ever asked in (forgive me) The World’s Strongest Man. Straight after the truck pulling heat, a presenter rushed up to the exhausted competitor and asked “What’s the hardest part of this challenge?” The competitor gave a complete look of exasperation and said “Pulling the truck!”

  5. Michael Pearson says:

    The Henschel Quartet were described as ‘devastatingly in tune’ by the reviewer of The Huddersfield Examiner last week . Chris Robins goes on to explain the ‘oneness’ achieved by Beethoven in his last quartet. Oh dear….

    • Now, if Mr. Robins had said devastatingly “out of tune” we could have all fallen over dead (or dying of laughter).

  6. David Boxwell says:

    Giddy. Giddily.

  7. Sirs, if I could get your attention for a moment: might I interest you in buying some of my sublime sub-prime slime?

  8. For simple starters, how about “dramatic”? And, as one begins the process of levitation, maybe “ethereal” or “transcendent”? Or, looking in the other direction, “sub lime” as when the neighborhood mobster tries disposing a dead victim, e.g., an intransigent and/or vindictive orchestra director.

  9. Michael Wilkinson says:

    Anything, anywhere described as ‘iconic’.

    ‘Legendary’ … used to mean ‘old’ or Katherine Jenkins

    ‘Monumental’ – very slow with loud chords

    ‘Classical’ – meaning Katherine Jenkins, Andre Rieu, Andrea Bocelli or Michael Buble (Amazon please note).

    • Elana Newman says:

      So, gentlemen, what would you use to describe, say, a performance of Schubert D 960 that you deem utterly bloody marvellous other than ‘transcendent’ or ‘sublime’ – perhaps ‘heavenly’, ‘splendiferous’ , ‘lofty’, or even ‘dynamite’ (all proffered by Roget)? I agree, it’s all very annoying but what does one say instead?

      • G. J. Radnor says:

        I Listen to the D960 and when it ends I am speechless.
        Youtube gives many artists as options and it proves that Schubert was a wonderful composer.

  10. May I nominate a favorite of one prominent NY Times reviewer: “a revelatory performance”…?

  11. Alexander Hall says:

    Which other term should be banned in all marketing departments of orchestras? “Ever-popular”. This is increasingly used to describe every concerto under the sun intended to make punters think, “Gosh, I really need to go and hear that.”

    • Martin Locher says:

      Lots of pieces performed are “ever-popular”. To me “ever popular” means, that it’s not really worth to travel too far for the concert, because a local orchestra will likely play the piece soon anyway.

  12. Joe Queenan on “astonishing”:

    “…I don’t care how astonishing Maurizio Pollini’s technique is, particularly when he’s playing Lizst’s Sonata in B minor; pianists with astonishing technique are a dime a dozen. Anyway, I prefer pianists who play with icy, laconic detachment.”

  13. Cicely Woodruff says:

    ‘Awesome’ is one of my pet noires. And, ‘fulsome’ – how about you critics out there checking up on its true meaning: I personally would be offended if I received fulsome praise for my performance since I would understand it to be ‘disgustingly fawning’ [Chambers]. Trouble is it now always seems to be used as a synonym for ‘effusive’. I fear though that the battle is lost and shall have to accept the ambiguity of e.g. ‘Djokovic was fulsomely congratulated by the referee…’

  14. These are all terrific. You have the makings of a “devastatingly funny” dictionary.

  15. Julie & Paul; Northport Maine says:

    “Arguably”: get rid of it.

    Someone stumbles on the pavement?… – it’s “poignant!”, Etc.
    Especially after 9/11 that word went into overdrive.
    I hate it.

  17. How about ‘VERY’

    This was the very first performance or the was his very first win. Either it was the first or it wasn’t!

    The BBC are especially bad at this. 99% of the time the word could be left out

  18. stanley cohen says:

    It’s not only the choice of words but those who employ them. A E Houseman’s dislike of critics was encapsulated in his comment that “A critic is like a drunk, emerging from a Public House at closing time – he leans against a lamp-post – not to benefit from its illumination but to disguise the extent of his own intoxication,” The most succinct comment came from Artur Rubinstein reacting to a bad crit in ” If I don’t play, he doesn’t write.” The prize must however be given to Max Reger, who reacted to a particularly obnoxious crit which went beyond the bounds of decency and became personal. He wrote to the editor of the journal in which it had appeared ” I am sitting in the smallest room in the house and your critic’s words are before me. They will soon be behind me.”

  19. Google “Andrew Clements” and “hugely impressive”!

  20. If I can widen the question to cover adjectives, I nominate “passionate” as in “passionate about…”

  21. “War horse.” One definition of war horse is “a piece of music that is familiar and hackneyed because of too frequent performance.”

    What is a war horse for a music critic may be a piece of music that many of us in the symphony orchestra audience have never heard in live performance.

  22. not to mention the use of the word “debutant” to describe a football play in his first game. but the peak is the debased use of the word “rhetoric”.

    • I had a concert that was described by a certain well known critic (mentioned elsewhere in these comments…) as my “Wigmore Hall debut”. It was actually my 3rd appearance there but clearly only the first time he’d come along to listen!

  23. Mighty Vinyl says:

    Not exclusively in reviews, but anything “juxtaposed” in “unexpected ways” should be deliberately separated and expelled.

  24. Harrison Boyle says:

    There is far too much boiler-plate in all music writing, and it can’t help but strengthen the impression that no one cares. For example, I have yet to see any biographical puffery about any not-yet famous singer that does not contain the hideous phrase “equally at home.”

  25. I’d have a moratorium on “Extraordinary”. Some R3 broadcasters are hooked on it.
    “Critical acclaim” in CVs s due for a rest too

  26. Chris Walsh says:

    Frank Zappa once remarked that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

    Perhaps we should all just shut up and listen, then form our own judgements instead of having others imposed on us.

  27. It’s not so much the individual words used–for example, the word “sublime” has a very specific and necessary meaning as found in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). The problem is the thoughtless regurgitation of cliché. It is quite possible to write intelligent criticism using all of the above individual words (though not, perhaps, some of the hackneyed phrases). It is the quality of thought that is most important, not a few individual words.

  28. “Well-drilled”. Most often used of choral groups, especially the larger amateur ones. It’s maddening to see a critic write this of a performance that felt a darn-sight better than “well-drilled” and use the same term to describe one that was tuning- and text-free… And I’ve heard enough of the latter to know the difference.

  29. G. J. Radnor says:

    There must be a techie that can put all these words of infamy together and send them to all the critics.

  30. Sir:

    This is not directed specifically at critics, but I find it amazing how amazingly overused the word “amazing” is by all sections of society. What was once a significant compliment has become diluted in meaning to an extent comparable to “awesome” in American English. Both of the aforementioned words have degenerated into clichés that I find unbearably irritating to hear or read.

    I also endorse the views expressed in various comments above on the excess of superlative sycophancy on the part of some broadcasters and presenters, often for performances that were far from being beyond reproach. A particularly irksome expression is “the foremost [...] of his/her/their generation.” I think that every critic should be banned from utilising it more than once or twice a year (cumulatively across all instruments/voices/compositional styles/&c.).

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