Section 5.13 Writing for Music and Music History
While everyone has heard, and probably even played, music, writing about it is an entirely different province; so even if you are the most ardent music-lover, be prepared to find writing about music unfamiliar. Read this guide to learn more about the skills you will need to write well about music.
Unless otherwise stated, all italicized quotes throughout this section are excerpted from the interview with Music and Music History faculty members at the University of Puget Sound that informed this section.
“It's a pay-attention sort of paper.”
Some music-writing genres—the sort that require extensive knowledge of terminology—are limited to music majors and include analytical papers in which you will look at a score and make an argument about it using technical descriptions of its subtleties as evidence. Other music-writing genres—which do not require heavy amounts of technical vocabulary—will be assigned to both majors and non-majors. These less technical papers include a version of the analytical paper, where you write a listening guide for a piece of music; book reviews, patterned after professional book reviews, where you review books dealing with musical issues; field work papers, where you analyze the interaction between music and culture on or off campus; reception histories, where you describe the reception of a particular composer when they were alive, and analyze why and how that reception changed over time; broader versions of reception histories, where you take a work where there is a critical mass of scholarship and then combine analysis, history, and criticism of that work; performance reports, informal pieces of writing where you describe what you heard at a performance, what the event was like, and how the audience responded; as well as conventional research papers.
“If you don't write your ideas down, no one will know them.”
Like most endeavors, writing academically about music has many entwined purposes. First of all, writing about music will help you learn about music. This will mean going beyond your subjective reaction to a score and exploring the details of its artistry. Further, by learning to write well about music, you will also foster writing skills that you will be able to apply to other kinds of writing that you will do in future. Still more, by writing papers about music, you will be joining a scholarly conversation, whose complex and multifarious voices will push you to evaluate complex arguments and learning how to persuade others yourself.
“How the heck do you write about sound?”
One of the greatest stumbling blocks for new music writers can sometimes be the thing that drew you to music in the first place; we have all heard music, and we love it and know how important it is. But being able to transform that love into a profound and specific analysis of the “hows” and “whys” of a chosen piece of music is an exercise in patience and practice. But hang in there! That exercise will lead you to a deeper appreciation for music than you began with.
When you are writing about texts, you are using words to analyze words. However, when writing about musical texts, the thing you are analyzing is sound, which is invisible. So in order to write well about music you will need to meaningfully translate what you hear into writing.
When you are trying to do the work of such meaningful translation, when you are listening to and looking at a score, there will always be an infinite number of ways of looking at it, some of which are more persuasive and reasonable than others. In order to write persuasively, and choose which way to “look” at a score or even a book, the most important thing to keep in mind is to go beyond description. While description is a great starting point—because good description ensures that you are paying attention and noticing what is unusual—analysis requires explaining why that something is unusual or significant.
“We have a broader definition of text . . . music is a text, performance is a text.”
In your music classes, just like your English and history classes, evidence is almost exclusively textual. However in music-writing, scores and performances are also considered to be texts, and accurate descriptions of them are what constitute evidence. Unlike in the sciences, you won't be creating evidence yourself (by doing an experiment), instead you are finding evidence in secondary sources and by your own observation.
Conventions and Tips.
Describing music involves using a series of agreed-upon metaphors (e.g. a wet sound v. a dry sound). While such terminology can be daunting, it can be very helpful when writing about sound.
With the above tip in mind, there is sometimes a misconception that when you are writing about music it has to be really jargon-laden and technical. If you are uncomfortable with writing about music, it is always better to say what you have to say clearly rather than throwing words out like a cloud of squid ink.
Because music takes place in time, there is a tendency to work your way through a piece that you are writing about from beginning to end. Part of mastery is not being stuck doing this kind of “inchworm” writing. If you notice yourself using “and then” a lot, think about whether you could organize your thoughts in a more persuasive way.
Make sure to refer specifically to the measure in a score or the timing in a recording when describing a musical piece.