Music criticism : why and how?

A primer for school workshops on music criticism. Absolutely & definitely not exhaustive!

Why write about music?

Let’s start with the fundamentals. First and foremost you are writing about music because you love it. For me there’s an unashamed element of evangelising: I think that music matters, I want it to be thought about, argued about and enjoyed by as many people as possible. So my aim is to write about music in a way that means something to other people who already love it — but also in a way that might make someone who has never gone to a classical concert think, “hey, that sounds intriguing, maybe I’ll go along next time.”

That said, music criticism is not cheerleading. As a critic you shouldn’t be afraid to criticise and you shouldn’t swallow marketing hype. Offer an opinion that is honest, well-informed and clear-headed. Not every performance is great and not every new piece of music works; it’s crucial that you’re able to say so and to discuss why. A negative review is a vital contribution to any cultural ecosystem – as long as that review has been thoughtfully written.

Who’s your audience?

Anybody who might pick up the paper. You’re not writing for a specialist music magazine or an academic journal, so your reader shouldn’t need any musical training to be able to understand your review. The point here is that we want classical music to be part of everyday conversation, as normal and as newsworthy as any other item in a newspaper.

So that means: keep it readable and keep it snappy. Remember that most people only skim through a newspaper. People read headlines and get bored easily, and surprisingly few bother reading all the way to the end of an article. Most readers will give up if they have to struggle through convoluted sentences and long words. Make your writing as clear and engaging as possible. Avoid technical terms that only music geeks will understand and will make everyone else feel stupid. Avoid obscure comparisons, flowery descriptions and superlatives. Don’t be afraid of using ordinary words.

BUT this does not mean dumbing down what you want to say. Don’t be shy of thinking deeply and emotionally: that’s your job. The best writers can make intricate and profound ideas come across easily and entertainingly.

Why are you writing this particular review?

Space in newspapers is very limited, so think about what makes this concert worth reporting. Did it celebrate a composer’s anniversary? The beginning of a big festival? The premiere of a new piece? A soloist’s debut with an orchestra? The first time the conductor has tackled an important symphony? These are the kind of background details you might include in the opening paragraph of your review to let readers know why they should care about this particular concert.

Are you reviewing the music or the performers?

There’s no fixed rule here. Sometimes the answer is one or the other, sometimes it’s both. In general, if there’s any new music on the programme, you should describe it vividly and indicate whether you think it’s any good. Shostakovich is a core composer but his Fourth Symphony isn’t played as often as some of his other symphonies, so you might want to explain why. Mostly, you should focus on whether or not you think the performance does the symphony justice and why.

Also remember that you’re reviewing the whole concert experience. Stay clear of details like how you got there or what the soloist was wearing (unless it’s really weird!), but there are other contextual things that are worth thinking about. For example, if the concert is part of a festival, how does it fit within the broader themes of that festival? You could also mention the acoustics of the hall: was it very reverberant (like a cathedral) or very dry (like a carpeted living room)? And how did these factors enhance or detract from the experiences of hearing the music?

Be ready to be surprised. You might think that you don’t like a certain composer; you might think that your favourite recording of Brahms 1 is the only one you’ll ever like. But keep your ears open and who knows what will hit you. That’s the thrill of live performance. Writing about the music you love means constantly confronting your own preconceptions.

Style tips

  • Always back up your opinions. Reviewing isn’t so much about how you feel as why you feel that way. If you thought the performance was exciting, can you pinpoint why? Was it because of certain tempos, dynamics, colours, contrasts? If a slow movement sounded boring, was it because the tempo was too stodgy, or maybe the phrases had no direction? Do you think it was something that the conductor did, or certain sections of the orchestra? Was there an interesting interaction between the soloists and the orchestra? Of course not everything about what makes a performance work (or not) can be described: one reason that music exists is to say things that words can’t. But it’s your job to try!
  • Stick to your guns. Even if everyone else leaves the concert with a different opinion from you, it’s important that you trust what you heard. There’s an unspoken rule between critics in Scotland that we don’t discuss what we think of a concert until after we’ve written our reviews. At the end of the day, someone will always disagree with what you write (and will often tell you so!) but that doesn’t matter – as long as you’ve been honest and have backed up your opinions.
  • Don’t be salacious. Never be unnecessarily cruel or kind in order to make your writing more entertaining. The hardest concerts to review are the middle-of-the-road ones: not amazing, not completely rubbish. But remember that performers are real people who have committed their lives to playing music. Never insult them without considering why you are being negative. That doesn’t mean you should be shy of writing negative comments if you don’t like what you hear – but never use words you wouldn’t be prepared to use in conversation.
  • Be careful with grammar. In general, use past tense for anything that happened during the concert. Use present tense for an opera production that is still running or for permanent details about the music or performers. There are some grey areas; use your common sense!

Practical tips

  • Stick to the word limit. Editors hate writers who waffle. If you file too many words, they’ll simply chop away the extra ones until your review fits into the space they have on the page. They’re busy people and they might not take as much care when they’re chopping your words as you do when you’re writing them.
    Which means… don’t try to include everything. You’ll never be able to fit in everything there is to say about a concert. The skill is highlighting what you think are the most important and interesting bits, and using concise language to convey your ideas. Ditch the long metaphors, forget the convoluted anecdotes.
  • File on time. Daily newspapers are put together on a very tight schedule and editors need to know they can absolutely rely on their writers to meet deadlines. If anything, filing on time is as important as what you file!
  • Check spellings. As well as using your normal spell check, always double check the spellings of names. Editors probably won’t recognise the name of every artist or composer or piece of music, so they won’t necessarily catch a mistake. Getting names wrong can undermine the credibility of your review: it can make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about and can be offensive to the artists involved.
  • Give yourself enough time. Even though reviews are short in word length, they aren’t usually quick or easy to write. I like to go home straight after a concert and draft my review while my thoughts are still fresh, then the next morning get up early enough to reread, edit and send in my review before deadline. (Key word there: before deadline!)