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Essential vocabulary for music critics


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Okay, so I'm writing my review of the new Don Peris's lovely new solo album, Go When the Morning Shineth, and I'm sitting her fumbling for words... probably because I've described his guitar playing so many times before, and I'm running out of synonyms for "shiny."

Music critics face a far greater challenge than film critics, I think, because it's harder to describe sound than sights.

I'd like to ask the music critics here... what descriptions are you particularly proud of writing down?

What words come in handy when describing various guitar styles?

What words do you hope you never see again in a music review?

And what the bloody towel do you call it when someone strums the guitar strings rhythmically while muting them for percussive effect?

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Since I tend to review a lot of atmospheric, ambient music, I'm very guilty of usings words such as "ethereal", "dreamy", "drifting", "celestial", "droney", "blissed out", etc., etc. For example, my review of lovesliescrushing's Glissceule contains such pull quotes as...

Imagine "Loomer" from My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" stretched out to its most abstract limits and then recorded onto a Tascam 4-track located in the holds of a boat slowly sinking into the Marianas Trench. Or Seefeel ditching the industrial rhythms of "Quique" for samples of background cosmic radiation and SETI recordings. Or Flying Saucer Attack trading in their pastoral feedback for the glittering wind of the Ross Ice Shelf.
"It's an 80 minute dance of glossolalia and guitars, the closest you can come to a soundtrack for the Northern Lights' reflections dancing across newfallen snow."

As ridiculous and Pitchfork-y as they may sound, those really were honest attempts to somehow describe lovesliescrushing's, um, ethereal, dreamy, blissed out music.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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The strings are damped. I don't know if there's a specific term for playing while simutaneously damping the strings, though.

"Muted" is probably the guitar term you're looking for.

Music critics face a far greater challenge than film critics, I think, because it's harder to describe sound than sights.
True. Also, for some reason there seems to be more strict requirements for film criticism, as far as education, literary/screenwriting knowledge and technical understanding of the filmmaking process go. It should be the other way around. It has become increasingly obvious that many of the Pitchfork-y reviewers out there would do well to take a couple of music theory classes. The lack of nuts-n-bolts musical understanding gives us a lot of clever reviews of style, but fewer cogent critiques of composition and substance. (i.e. about half of the Paste reviews I read)

Jazz or Classical music critics tend to be much better informed on technical matters of composition, melodic/harmonic structures and so forth, than the average indie pop/rock critic. Of course those mediums dictate a more technical, analytical approach, but it would be nice to see a little more balance.

There are only a handful of music critics I take seriously anymore. Everything is "brilliant" these days.

Edited by coltrane

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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I seldom write reviews anymore - partly because it's difficult to not keep retreading the same words and phrases over and over. (My focus was/is on jazz and "world" music.) Classical is something I've never touched as a writer - writing about it requires knowledge I simply don't have.

This touches on a reason why I often struggle with writing music reviews. It's not that I no longer enjoy telling people about new music, or that I'm not finding music that excites and intrigues me enough to write about it, but I often feel, as you do, that I'm using the same old phrases, cliches, and descriptions time and again. In other words, it ceases to be a creative writing endeavor. I could go the Pitchfork route and be all glib and whatnot, and sometimes I do and sometimes it works well, but that gets tedious as well. If I do that too often, I feel like I'm not writing anything with substance.

I admire folks like my friend Aaron, who can churn out 4-5 reviews a week, and whose reviews are, for the most part, pretty down-to-earth and unpretentious. But honestly, sometimes the only thing I can say about an album is that it's really good and I really do honestly enjoy it, and I just don't have the energy or desire to get any more verbose than that.

And coltrane's right... I often feel very uneducated when it comes to actual music itself. I mean, I know many bands and their histories and discographies, and there are certainly genres that I'm very knowledgeable about. But as for the actual underpinnings of music itself, I know very little. There's a part of me that shuns that, because it seems to academic and I want to write from "the heart", whatever that means. But there's also a part of me that, well, just feels kind of dumb when I start talking about really great melodies, but that's about all I can say, and I can't defend it any deeper than that.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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And coltrane's right... I often feel very uneducated when it comes to actual music itself. I mean, I know many bands and their histories and discographies, and there are certainly genres that I'm very knowledgeable about. But as for the actual underpinnings of music itself, I know very little. There's a part of me that shuns that, because it seems to academic and I want to write from "the heart", whatever that means. But there's also a part of me that, well, just feels kind of dumb when I start talking about really great melodies, but that's about all I can say, and I can't defend it any deeper than that.

Discussions of music theory might be helpful within the context of classical music or jazz. In terms of pop music/rock 'n roll, however, I tend to view such discussions as irrelevant at best, and possibly sleep inducing. It's just not that difficult to play D, A, and G chords, and virtuosity is rarely a consideration.

For me, the greatest challenge in writing a review is trying to come up with new ways to describe music I've already heard a thousand times. In spite of music publicists working overtime to come up with new ways to spin their artists as innovative and groundbreaking, there really is very little new under the sun. Somebody can and no doubt will claim that Arctic Monkeys have created a fresh, new sound. Pardon me while I yawn.

Most new music is okay. It's not terrible, nor is it particularly new and exciting, and almost every rock 'n roll band in existence is recycling one or more previous bands. I think it's okay to say that, and to mention those bands by name. But the miracle is that sometimes even the most frequently imitated sounds take on a life of their own. "Beatle-esque" is a critical cliche precisely because everybody knows The Beatles, their music is a popular touchstone, and because they have been imitated so frequently. In spite of that, Sam Phillips can release a ridiculously "Beatle-esque" album like Martinis and Bikinis and it can sound fresh and altogether new. I like to think of this as the grace of God; a finite number of notes can be repackaged again and again, and something like joy can still break through the hard, calloused surface of a jaded reviewer's heart. It's one of the things I live for, and I hope it's still worth writing about.

Edited by Andy Whitman
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I seldom write reviews anymore - partly because it's difficult to not keep retreading the same words and phrases over and over. (My focus was/is on jazz and "world" music.) Classical is something I've never touched as a writer - writing about it requires knowledge I simply don't have.

This touches on a reason why I often struggle with writing music reviews. It's not that I no longer enjoy telling people about new music, or that I'm not finding music that excites and intrigues me enough to write about it, but I often feel, as you do, that I'm using the same old phrases, cliches, and descriptions time and again.

I wonder if this touches on why, at least at A&F, there is way more discussion in the film threads than in the music threads. I doubt you could explain this by saying movies are more popular than music. I am in no way discrediting the ability to write about film, but writing about music is difficult. There have been many times I've wanted to open threads about specific artists but due to limits in my musical vocabulary, the most I could offer is, "they're good. I like them, maybe you should too." And so, I say nothing or I recycle the my stock of 10 to 20 metaphors.

"It is scandalous for Christians to have an imagination starved for God." - Mark Filiatreau

I write occasionally at Unfamiliar Stars.

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Discussions of music theory might be helpful within the context of classical music or jazz. In terms of pop music/rock 'n roll, however, I tend to view such discussions as irrelevant at best, and possibly sleep inducing. It's just not that difficult to play D, A, and G chords, and virtuosity is rarely a consideration.

Of course, only a tiny niche of math-music geeks want to read music theory dissertations in their album reviews. However, a general knowledge of music composition/theory is indispensible-- even in something as "primitive" as rock-- to understanding why an album may or may not be brilliant.

To borrow from the classic pop/rock canon, an album like Pet Sounds is brilliant not just because Wilson did some cool stylistic things like make the session pianist lay under the piano and pluck the strings to create a haunting harp-like sound for an intro, but because of the actual compositions and what he tried to do harmonically within the confines of pop music. Now, a critic could amplify this point and analyze the clever and unique (by pop standards) progression in "You Still Believe in Me", but that's unnecessary.

In music mags we get tons of this stuff, which pardon the hammering, i have quoted previously (Re: Beck's Guero):

Beck has to go out... and face a world that has spiraled deep into his frayed nerves, gawked at his misfortunes and appropriated his most personal musings for its own sundry purposes. It's an awkward spot, much luike facing a friend who bore sober witness to a night of drunken mewling when you were at your most depserate.
:blink: This particular review has little to do with the actual music and more to do with the self-absorbed wordplay of the critic. For the record, I think this particular piece is extremely well-written, but has almost nothing to do with music. In this blog-dominated universe we see a lot of this form of rock criticism.

A general musical understanding of voices, instruments, dynamics, key and rythymn can only help the rock critic IMO.

Edited by coltrane

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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In music mags we get tons of this stuff, which pardon the hammering, i have quoted previously (Re: Beck's Guero):

Beck has to go out... and face a world that has spiraled deep into his frayed nerves, gawked at his misfortunes and appropriated his most personal musings for its own sundry purposes. It's an awkward spot, much luike facing a friend who bore sober witness to a night of drunken mewling when you were at your most depserate.
:blink: This particular review has little to do with the actual music and more to do with the self-absorbed wordplay of the critic. For the record, I think this particular piece is extremely well-written, but has almost nothing to do with music. In this blog-dominated universe we see a lot of this form of rock criticism.

A general musical understanding of voices, instruments, dynamics, key and rythymn can only help the rock critic IMO.

Sure. I do think it's incumbent on a music critic to write about the music he or she is reviewing. Wow, what a concept. And while this is never a dispassionate endeavor, I do think many critics err too much on the side of the kind of navel gazing and philosophical speculation you quote above.

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I would say to read a guitar magazine like Guitar World and see how they describe guitar tones/sounds/techniques. When I wrote a few music reviews for my college paper, I would read reviews related to the genre of music I had to review.

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I would say to read a guitar magazine like Guitar World and see how they describe guitar tones/sounds/techniques.

That's actually a great suggestion.

I also want to add that despite Opus' "non-musician" confession regarding his album reviews, his site has remained an an excellent repository for reviews over the years. I have always found his music reviews to be top notch and informative. (How else would I have been turned on to something like Black Moth Super Rainbow's Start a People several years ago???)

"The things we enjoy are channels through which the divine glory strikes us, and those who love and delight in any good thing may yet learn to love God." --Gilbert Meilaender

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I think it's nice to be able to tell if an album's using really generic chord sequences or doing something a bit more creative - I think that it's a good sign, though of course still only a part of the whole package, of how well a record will hold up to repeated listenings. But it's not something that a review needs to go into a lot of depth about, and of course it varies from genre to genre as well.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents
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guitar adjectives i have used lately in music writing: angular, buttery, ramshackle, sinewy, buzzsaw, hazy,

words to avoid: "blistering fretwork". This phrase has cracked me up since it was used (positively) in a review of a show i played in my friend's backing band, despite the fact that i was only playing sloppy power chords and a few open arpeggios.

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