Overthunk: Writing About Music

Writing about music is hard. Writing about writing about music is relatively easy, so that’s what I did.

[Overthunk is a new series where OTI writers give short, unstructured thoughts about a piece of pop culture. They’re not meant to be as deep as a typical article. Use them as a springboard for further discussion in the comments below]

Writing about music is really frustrating.  And really hard to do.

You’ll notice that we don’t do it very often around these parts.  We have a whole series called “Musical Talmud,” true, but that’s devoted to writing about lyrics.  Which is easy to do, because lyrics are words, and writing words about words is no great challenge.  (Or at least no greater a challenge than any other kind of writing.)  Music on the other hand, is elusive.

One could argue that this is not a bug but a feature:  that music’s elusive, trans-linguistic quality is the whole point of music. This was a very popular way of looking at it in the 19th century.  Heinrich Heine thought so:  “Where words leave off, music begins.”  So did Walter Pater:  “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.  For [in other kinds of art] it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form…” So did Arthur Schopenhauer:  “… music is also wholly independent of the appearing world, simply ignoring it, so that it could in a sense still exist even if there were no world at all, something that cannot be said of the other arts.”  I could go on, but it would get pretty boring pretty fast for most of you, if it hasn’t already.  Suffice it to say that this line of thought was widespread, and that it did not die out in the 19th century.  It’s still very much alive.  (In terms of aesthetics, politics, and so much else, our I sometimes think modern society is just the 19th century’s rueful hangover.)

There’s something attractive about this idea, if you’re a big music fan.  After all, why not have your favored art form be the artiest one of all?  Why not imbue it with an almost mystical significance, and proclaim beyond description?  Well, one reason not to do that is that if you care a lot about music you’re probably going to want to talk about it to someone at some point.  And then you’re going to have to find some way to do that without sounding like an idiot.

There are basically three ways of approaching the problem, as far as I can tell.  If this was a full post, I’d link to copious examples of each.  But since it’s just part of my ongoing project to change my writing habits, I’ll just offer a general description and leave the examples as an exercise for the reader.  (Lazy, I know, right?)

1)  One response to the difficulty of describing music is to come up with a technical vocabulary for it.  This can range from the very basic — Ti is not just a drink with jam and bread, but also the note that brings us back to Do — to the very complex, and as long as the person you are talking to has had the same kind of training that you have, it’s possible to describe music in great detail.  But although these technical vocabularies, which are essentially extensions to language, have carved out quite a territory for themselves within music, they don’t quite get around the problem of music’s supposed ineffability.  No matter how detailed your technical vocabulary gets, it’s never going to capture everything that made the music meaningful – because after all, the meaning is partially a function of the listener’s psychological makeup, musical training, and personal experience – and one could always claim, as many have, that the important part of music is the part that hasn’t been captured by language.  Whatever that might be.  In any case, you don’t come across this kind of thing very much outside of academia, because mainstream music writers can’t assume that their audience has had any kind of formal or informal training.  (Adding to the problem is the fact that the symbolic vocabularies that currently exist are very ill-suited to describing most modern popular music – but that’s another issue for another post.)

2)  A second approach is to try to make your record review read like a prose poem.  The thought process here seems to be something like, “Well, the music moves me on a level I can’t explain, so rather than try to explain it I’ll try to come up with something that will move my readers on that same level.”  These are fun to read, often wonderfully fun.  But they utterly fail at describing the music.  You can’t get a sense from one of these reviews of what the listening experience is like, other than that it apparently excited the critic enough that he/she felt the need to wax poetic.  (Okay, one example:  if you track down any of Lester Bangs’ writing about rock music, it all pretty much reads like this.  And however well it captures the sensation of being inside Lester Bangs’ skull in the mid 1970s, it does not actually do a good job of capturing the musical sounds that it is notionally supposed to describe.)

3)  The third, and maybe best way of talking about music is, is to compare it to other music.  I sometimes think of this as the elevator-pitch approach:  a given band is like the Beatles meets Kraftwerk, or Jay-Z meets Jah Rule, or whatever combination seem appropriate.  This works reasonably well in practical terms.  But once again it assumes extensive knowledge on your audience’s part, and what’s worse it only displaces the problem,  Saying someone sounds like the Beatles is only meaningful if you have some kind of idea of what the Beatles sounded like.  This kind of writing about music is turtles all the way down.

The trick, then, is figuring out a way to talk about music that doesn’t require extensive formal training, that accurately describes a given piece of music to someone who has never heard it, and that really does translate the musical ideas into words rather than trying to find a way to discuss them in terms of other music.  And this is not a question I really have an answer for – it’s something I continue to struggle with, and probably will continue to struggle with.  To an extent, all I want to do here is lay out the problem, so that I can offer some faltering attempts at a solution in a later post.  Suggestions, of course, are always welcome.

18 Comments on “Overthunk: Writing About Music”

  1. Dan #

    I’m not sure it is, or even should be possible to talk about music without SOME prior shared knowledge. Let’s call your three approaches 1) theoretical, 2) poetic, 3) historical.

    All three require prior knowledge of either 1) music theory, 2) the subjects of whatever metaphors you chose to use in your poetry, 3) music history.

    So what?

    Can you talk about visual art without running into the same problem? Sure, you can say – “that’s a sculpture of a goat with a tire on it.” But that’s essentially the equivalent of talking about they lyrics to a pop song. In order to get at the deeper meaning of said tire-bedecked goat you pretty much have to use one of the three approaches described above.

    Art is contextual – western listeners need some background to appreciate Indian music and vice versa. Any discussion of art requires some sort of frame, or else it’s just word salad. And while Lester Bangs’ descriptions of music may be a bit florid, I’d still rather read his than a review created by hurling magnetic poetry at a refrigerator. :)


  2. Qwil man #

    This is absolutelty on the side of “requires technical training” side of things but we already have a system by which we can read how music sounds. Sheet music. Someone sufficiently trained can lookat a book of music and formulate the whole thing together in her head because the sound of every note is spelled out explicitly. Again, this doesn’t solve the problem of requiring years or maybe even decades to learn, but it’s something to consider while figuring out the solution.


  3. Kenley #

    Interesting article. I wish I could suggest something to help you, but one my dreams is to be a critic. Apparently I suck at it, so I feel the pain of not being able to completely describe something.
    I’ve also thought of another problem about the third one. A flaw that you probably forgot to write is the factor of imagination. Sure, you could tell me that this new artist sounds like Daft Punk and Jay-Z, but everyone will imagine something else on their heads.
    @Qwil man Sure, people with the proper training might be able to read it, but what about people like me. People who want to read about it, yet do not have to formal training. I like reading Musical Talmud, although it only applies to lyrics. I’ve seen different music critics review albums and I get disappointed, since imagine the song to be different. Another problem is they write about these songs, so we could make a better decision in buying a certain album…other than listening to the song. In fact, I’m sorry. You gave a really good suggestion, although it has some very obvious flaws. Oh and one more thing, how about the autotune and those things that DJs use.
    @Dan I agree.


  4. CG #

    @Qwil sheet music is not nearly good enough to describe music. Even with classical music, any two orchestras playing the same piece off the same sheet music can sound wildly different, based on choices they’ve made about orchestration, balance, tempo, particular emphasis, etc. And modern music contains many, many sounds that can’t be written down, foremost being the particular sound of the instruments used. Consider all the knobs on a guitar amp: would you write down the position of each one, plus the guitar make, plus the pedals and their settings, plus the way each note is hit, plus the acoustic properties of the locale? Of course not. Never mind the complexities of voice.
    Sheet music is like a color-by-number. The art is in the interpretation.
    @Dan re: art is contextual, the interesting thing is I can enjoy Indian music without any context (maybe not the lyrics as much). That’s what’s striking about music, is that it doesn’t really need context, I can just hear a song anywhere and start grooving to it. Whereas I don’t stop and appreciate visual art unless I realize it’s meant to be art, like if it’s framed or in a museum.


  5. Jesse M #

    “Why not imbue it with an almost mystical significance, and proclaim beyond description?”

    Fallacy alert: there’s a very common assumption in Western culture that all experience can be translated seamlessly into words. Saying that music can’t be captured in words isn’t imbuing it with a mystical significance; it’s simply stating an obvious fact about media and the senses: the various faculties that allow us to appreciate music are totally different from the ones that allow us to understand verbal meaning.

    Incidentally, both of these are different from the faculties that allow us to understand painting and photography, and none of these can quite capture what it’s like to experience a film. But nobody feels the need to point that out… we live in a culture that assumes the written word can capture and contain everything else, so we start to feel the need to write things like this: “Where words leave off, music begins.” This is a rather defensive misdirection from a more fundamental fact: music and words were never on the same track to begin with.

    Pater and Shopenhauers’ statements are the natural expressions of esteem by true appreciators of a medium. When you’re truly in love with something, whether it’s a person or an idea or an artistic form like “music,” you’ll spend lots of time trying to distinguish it from its peers.

    But you’ll never be able to seamlessly translate from the aural experience to the written word. Most of the rest of your questions — how technical you should be when describing it, how important it is to evoke the true feeling of listening — can probably be answered by thinking about your audience, and practicing to see which style suits your voice the best.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      “Saying that music can’t be captured in words isn’t imbuing it with a mystical significance; it’s simply stating an obvious fact about media and the senses…”

      I may not have expressed myself clearly. The claim that music is “beyond” language is not necessarily linked to the claim that music has some kind of mystical significance. But the claims are historically linked, and quite strongly. Most people who have made one also end up making the other. Not all, mind you. Your comment alone is proof of that! But most.


  6. stokes OTI Staff #

    The other problem with sheet music is that it’s not *about* music — it *is* the music. If I want to talk about what makes a song special, pointing to the sheet music is about as useful as handing someone a recording and saying “Just LISTEN to it! It freaking OWNS!”

    This is actually a very effective way of communicating about music informally — when I have “conversations about music” with people who are really into it, a lot of what we end up actually doing is playing tracks for each other. But if one wants to be a music critic (formally or informally), that’s not going to cut it.

    @Dan: Obviously a certain amount of prior knowledge will be necessary with any kind of art criticism — with any communication at all, really. And it’s true that writing about visual art (or film, or dance, or architecture) can bring up some of the same problems as writing about music. But in my personal experience, mainstream music criticism is much, much worse at actually talking about music than mainstream film criticism is at actually talking about film, or mainstream art criticism is at talking about art, etcetera. (This may just be because I know more about music, though, and know what I am missing.)


  7. Lee OTI Staff #

    Re: the inadequacy of sheet music to describe/capture modern pop music, i offer up the examples that we put together when discussing our favorite key changes:



    Granted, our transpositions are quite minimalistic, but can you imagine trying to fully score out “The Thong Song”? Needless to say, it would lack a certain je ne sais quois.


  8. John Bejarano #

    It’s true that the technical vocabulary and symbology of music is fine to describe certain aspects, but the first point in the article holds true. It’s only good as far as it goes.

    As for understanding the “feelings” that a piece of music evokes, I think it is truly impossible to do so completely objectively. Feelings, by definition, are very personal reactions to a stimulus, be it music, film, comedy, food, art, literature or what have you. The moment you go down that road, there are no words that can be accepted universally.

    I sort of learned this lesson with wine tasting. For years, I marvelled at the ability of some to taste all of these amazing flavors in a glass of wine. Cherries, raspberries, citrus, chocolate, leather, earth, they all seemed to evade me. Much as I love wine, my palate has never really been all that sophisticated.

    I realized one day, that what I had to do was not try to describe actual flavors, but rather experience the flavor, and mention the associations that popped up in my mind naturally. Seems kind of like BS, but I now presume that many wine drinkers follow a similar path. I even found a wine that tasted like “brooding”. I know that’s more an emotion than a flavor, but if brooding had a flavor, that wine was it.

    I imagine the same technique could be used to describe music. Why try to find universal words to describe how music makes “one” feel. That’s a fool’s errand. Describe how it makes “you” feel. While there will certainly be disagreements since feelings are not universal, there should be enough commonalities to hold together some sort of gossamer thread for others to grasp. True, the description could end up as purple as Bangs’ writing, but maybe that’s ok. Finding universal expressions for music (beyond its technical vocabulary), may just be as definitionally inappropriate as “really” describing what the square root of negative 1 is other than to shallowly label it “i”.


  9. JP #

    It’s quite simple, really: you hear music. You read and write words. When music hits your ear, a million things might happen internally. But in writing about those things, one still is not writing about the music itself. Even notes on a page are not “music,” rather a schematic to be followed, much the same way the directions with which one builds a bunk bed are not the bunk bed itself.

    Is it possible to accurately portray with words on a page what’s going on in my head at a Phish show? Sort of. I can lay out my thought processes, the widely varying mental terrain traversed while listening. I can write about the people around me, clothes and hair and styles of living. I can write about the various crescendoes the band might hit, the set-list, how they are playing, whether it is tight and crisp, or sloppy and lazy. But I can’t write about the notes themselves, because they only exist in that moment they are played, at which point they vanish (bootlegs give this up best, thanks to the responding crowd, a bootleg nothing more than a print of a work of art).

    This is why, in a lot of ways, most music writing is absolute garbage. The writer talks about everything but the actual music, and it gets tiresome. This is coming from a former music “journalist” who has written hundreds of pieces “on music.” I love music more than just about anything, but music is the invisible ink of experience, only to be enjoyed in that moment, as it happens, and everything else said afterward is reflection, introspection, and self-involvement, for the most part.

    Similarly, when the Strokes start rocking, I can’t tell you what’s going on in many terms beyond experiential ones. But that’s not what the music itself is. I don’t know, necessarily, what that substance itself is. I just know that it’s great, and that it feels good.


    • Dan #

      If you’re like many people at a Phish show, what’s going through your head is “Dude…. pass the Cheetos”

      Sorry, cheap shot. :)


  10. Dan #

    @CG – I didn’t say anything about LIKING music. :) I said APPRECIATE, which is a very different matter. (Full disclosure – I am a music teacher) When I teach music appreciation, the first thing I tell the students is “This is a class in appreciating music, not in liking it. I don’t care if you LIKE the music we’ll be discussing in this class, but by the end of the semester, I want you to understand a little bit about why the artists did what they did, and why people who DO like it, like it.”

    I think the reason music criticism is so much tougher than film criticism is that the basic elements of a movie are easier to grasp. “Look at that shot there. Did you see how the camera took in the rose petals, the aircraft carrier, AND the exploding ferret?” You can then go on to talk about why that does or doesn’t matter.

    On the other hand, if you say to someone with no musical background or training – “Listen to the transition from the verse to the chorus – isn’t it amazing how the texture changed seamlessly from violas to hurdy-gurdys at the same time as the composer modulated from F-sharp major to F minor?” – they will likely stare at you blankly, possibly kick you in the shins, and then take your wallet.

    I’m exaggerating, of course, but I think the basic building blocks of painting, sculpture, film, or drama are easier to grasp, so you can skip that level in your criticism. The basic building blocks of music simply aren’t as widely understood, and so they either have to be skipped or painstakingly explained, neither of which is terribly satisfactory.


  11. Timothy J Swann #

    The number of times I have fallen for Type #2! It ‘sounds’ excellent, but it doesn’t sound excellent, at least to my taste.

    As for Type #3, the trick is to become a band like personal favourite Pure Reason Revolution who have to be described by ludicrously different bands (specifically, Beach Boys + Pink Floyd + Justice)/


  12. Trevor #

    I’d like to try my hand at an Overthunk about Woody Allen, or more specifically “Annie Hall” (if you would like me to be specific and not general). Any requirements?


  13. Amanda #

    Trevor, yes! Do it! I’m dying to read it already! I’d rather read something about Woody in general, but just Annie Hall would be great too. :)

    As for the music, I have nothing to say… ;) except maybe, listen to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3ScfLqXlYc


    • Trevor #

      Article is written and sent off to the editors as of yesterday, so fingers crossed…


  14. Trevor #

    Writing about music is very subjective: what you might like isn’t necessarily what a random reader stumbling across your article might like. But I find that can be a good thing; sometimes an article is more memorable if it’s someone you’ve never heard of and the writing is so good that you’re intrigued to check it out. Just my two cents, anyway


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