How to write a music review

Musica Viva Australia has come up with a fabby idea of running a competition to get audience members to submit reviews of their concerts. They’re running a pilot with this month’s Jerusalem Quartet concert. They’ve asked me to judge and also to give a few tips on writing reviews.

Besides centuries of scholarly debate about criticism, musical and otherwise, there are any number of ‘how-to-write’s out there in cyberspace. I’ve put some links things I find useful at the end of this. But, for what it is worth, here are my top ten tips for writing reviews.

DO

Listen to the music. Really listen. Anyone can let the music waft over them – indeed, it’s one of life’s great joys — but if you are going to write about a performance you need to practise active listening. It takes concentration but the great thing about active listening is that it is so rewarding, both for the audience, and for the performers. You can feel it when an audience is really, really listening, and it can be a terrifically exciting moment.

Listen to yourself. It’s amazing how many people say, “I couldn’t review: I don’t know anything about music.” And yet, these same people will go to a concert and talk with animation and great insight about how a performance made them feel. A review takes this reaction a step further by asking what it was about that particular performance that produced that particular feeling. It doesn’t have to be scientific; just articulate, considered and your own.

Tell a story A review is not a scorecard, nor yet a blow-by-blow account of what happened. Like any good story, a review will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It might mention every piece, but not necessarily. It will obviously mention the performers, but might also mention the venue, or what they played, or how they presented it, or even the audience. The trick is to use these elements to build a succinct and interesting account of your reaction to the concert.

Beware of adjectives This doesn’t just apply to reviews! Adjectives can be a writer’s best friend, but they can turn into their worst enemy. Piling on the purple prose might make you feel like you are getting closer to the heart of the music, but it slows down the story. There are many ways to describe – through verbs, similes, or even the rhythm of the prose.

Be accurate. If this is too obvious, I apologize, but nothing is more dispiriting to a performer, and nothing more delightful to a picky reader, than spotting a factual error in a review. Check the program (if there is one, and if there is it usually online too), check the spelling of the artists’ names, call the presenter, phone a friend, but don’t publish something – and posting online counts as publishing — if you’re not 100% sure of your facts.

DON’T

Be mean. Writing a review puts you in an unusual position – you are passing judgement on a performance you could almost certainly not do yourself. It is not about pulling your punches, but do always respect the skill of the artists and the long journey they have taken to get where they are. Most importantly, if their performance disappoints, try to analyse why. It might not necessarily be wrong notes. What was missing?

Be obscure For the purposes of this exercise, let us assume you are writing for a general audience. Your readers may have been at the concert but it is much more likely they were not. They may follow classical music avidly, or just be interested in a good gig. No need to dumb down, but a discussion of the finer points of Sonata Form or middle eight chord progressions is for a program note or musicological essay, not a review.

Be trivial ‘Write about the band, not missing your train home,’ says Alex Petridis of The Guardian. He’s spot on. Your evening might be coloured by the terrible traffic on the bridge, but that’s the kind of detail which sits best in a personal diary or facebook page. We want to know about the performance.

Worry. Don’t worry about your musical knowledge or lack thereof. Don’t feel you need research your subject to the n-th degree. If you were there, you listened and you had a reaction, you have the basic ingredients for a review. Now tell the story!

Be late I’m not talking about being late for the concert, although struggling to get your breath back through the first movement or, worse, having to wait outside the door is never fun. I am referring to your deadline. A music critic can be insightful as they like, but if they do not deliver their story on time (and to the correct length), it won’t get published. The Herald usually needs the story by midday after the night of the gig. Musica Viva’s So-You-Think-You-Can-Write brief is up to 350 words, 48 hours from the start time of the concert. Whatever the deadline, don’t leave it too long. There’s nothing so old as old news.

Further reading:

Every would-be writer – in fact, every writer full stop — should read George Orwell’s rules on writing good English at least once a year.

1.     Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.     Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.     If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.     Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.     Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.     Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

From ‘On Politics and Language’ by George Orwell, in its entirety here.

Closer to home, Yvonne Frindley, who writes about music for Sydney Symphony and many others, has much sound advice and reflection on good writing about music in her blog, Thomasina’s Last Waltz. Start here.

Finally, there’s nothing like reading good writing. You will have your own favourites, but Alex Ross (author of The Rest is Noise and critic of the New Yorker) lists many music critics in the US. Seek inspiration here.

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5 thoughts on “How to write a music review

  1. johnofoz says:

    And not a response to be seen! Not many posts up on the MVA website either. Ah, well. But you’re the judge!!! Can’t hope to influence you. but the best entries may not event get to you. Check out johnofoz.wordpress.com
    Cheers,
    An Occasional Correspondent

    • harryfiddler says:

      Haven’t heard from Musica Viva either, but I know just what you mean about Haydn. You either get it or you don’t. It was a Haydn string quartet played, admittedly, by the Amadeus Quartet, that made me ask my parents if I could start violin lessons.

      I didn’t hear the Jerusalem play Haydn – it was the Mendelssohn the night I went. I’m not planning to review the performance — that’s someone else’s job this time, thank goodness.

  2. miriam zolin says:

    Hey! Great post, and I want to refer to it… may I? Mutual friend told me about it. I’m the convenor of the National Jazz Writing Competition, which has been going for 5 years and currently revolves around to reviews every four years (the other three years in the cycle it’s short story, poetry and essay)… writing inspired by and about music…

    Let me know how you want it acknowledged and I’ll link to it this weekend.

    • harryfiddler says:

      Thanks for the compliment. More than happy for you to link to it, no formal acknowledgement needed. And I’ve just been exploring extempore – looks great! Always interested in encouraging writing about music and art and will taking a longer look at the online edition at a more reasonable hour.

      Cheers!

  3. sleepysamco says:

    Wow. Thank you, this will be very useful!

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