How I understand music reviews better and explain it to others ?
January 23, 2009 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I listen to a lot of 'contemporary' music (not classical), but how do I better understand music reviews and explain what I hear to my friends and peers ?

I read music reviews (all sorts of genres, mostly rock and hip-hop, but also
electronic and blues) and often do not understand
a lot of the music terms and jargon mentioned in it.
For example, phrases like "supple, swelling pedal steel" from

and "surf-inspired riffs on 'x song' a "deep, rich tone, underscored by an eerie, shuddering organ." (from a review of a paper copy of a music mag, no online link), and "singing several layers forward in the mix"
in this blues review
are confusing for me.

So far, wikipedia has been somewhat helpful, but I ask the hive-mind for any other
good introductory books and resources (besides learning how to play an instrument) so I can understand reviews better
and be able to more richly describe music to friends and other people (than just 'sounds like this band', 'fast-paced' and
'samples this instrument').
posted by fizzix to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
"as well as moving Muddy's singing several layers forward in the mix" means it is now louder and clearer compared to the other instruments than it was in the previous version.

"supple, swelling pedal steel" means the reviewer likes it and it doesn't stay the same volume over time. The formula [adjective] + [instrument] means basically that the review likes it or doesn't, depending upon ifit's a positive or negative adjective.

Probably the best thing you can do is get a stack of your favorite albums together, then go back and read reviews of them while you listen to them again.

But reviewing music is far from an exact science (it's often just a pile of wank). Different reviewers will place a greater emphasis on accurately describing the music, describing the cultural context or significance, writing something that is enjoyable to read, and showing off their vocabularly/music collection.
posted by K.P. at 2:57 PM on January 23, 2009

I don't understand jargon any better than you do, and I really hate being pressed for a critical evaluation of something that I just want to sit back and enjoy. I know a lot of musicians, however, and when I can't describe how something sounds, it'll describe how it makes me feel, or the image it puts in my head.

Example: The new AnCo album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, sounds like a bunch of Ryan-McGinley naked hippies who live in the trees in the Ewok village on Endor and eat acid&fruit loops for breakfast.

The classic album Drukqs by Aphex Twin has always reminded me of a broken music box.

Boards of Canada sounds like the garbled rush of the waves and whispers of mermaids as you drown in a sea of sound.

Crystal Castles like you abducted a girl, gave her an Atari lobotomy, and then chased her through a spooky laboratory.
posted by Juliet Banana at 3:01 PM on January 23, 2009

Oh man. What a can of worms you're opening up here!

I'm a musican--by avocation at least--and studied jazz performance as my undergraduate major. But I can't say that I could give you any sort of definitive, authoritative glossary for the vocabulary you're asking about. I think that, unlike musical jargon like "mezzo piano" (a.k.a. moderately soft) and "fortissimo," (very loud) these terms exist in a personal, grey area that--to the best of my knowledge--there is no codification for (and the terms I just mentioned having to do with dynamics are rather vague themselves...but at least have relative significance when you are giving directions for performance).

I think that a lot of the terminology you are talking about can be readily grasped by everyone (or no one). If you have a phrase like "supple, swelling pedal steel," well, then we can deconstruct this a bit: pedal steel guitar has a particular sound that you've either heard or you haven't. I'm sure enthusiasts can classify it much further than I'm able to, but let's keep it simple. Then you have "supple" and "swelling..." Well, these can be defined generally. "Supple:" Moving and bending with agility; limber. And, "swelling:" 1. To cause to increase in volume, size, number, degree, or intensity: The governor's full public disclosure only swelled the chorus of protests. 2. To fill with emotion. (I think we can see dual meaning here).

So, coupled with an understanding of the usual sound of a pedal steel guitar--which is often played with a very gradual attack (now that is a more technical musical term: attack)--one can imagine that the author is suggesting that this pedal steel playing has a quality that provides dynamics which build gradually and perhaps also impart emotional heft; but also is able to move quickly through the piece showing expressive agility.

But that's me interpreting someone else's review which was in the first place a personal statement about their experience with a piece of music.

Fundamentally, on this level at least, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. I don't mean to be flippant, I just want to illustrate the fact that criticism is always going to be someone's personal take, and many of these terms don't have a precise musical meaning. But through experience of both reading criticism and listening to a lot of music, you'll get to know both what individual critics tend to mean as well as what you are interested in and can relate best to. I hope this helps.
posted by dubitable at 3:06 PM on January 23, 2009

Most of the best language to describe music of quality is as much emotive as anything else. It describes not just the concrete objects that make up the tune, but the feelings the tone evokes in the listener, and the comparisons it can draw amongst disparate subjects in one's mind while listening.

Imagine the same sorts of language being used to describe art - if one were to describe the Mona Lisa, for example, just saying "it's a picture of a woman looking at you" does no justice to the work, but start working with words like "enigmatic" or "knowing" or "wry" and you get much closer to the emotive core of the piece. Music is the same way - just describing the tempo of the song or the instruments inside does nothing to express the way the music makes you feel - it's like presenting a catalog of lego pieces without giving an idea of the final model.

A look at some of the language you've listed in your post - "supple, swelling pedal steel". This is a good one, in that it describes not just the specific element (pedal steel guitar) of the music, but how it could be considered as behaving... "supple", implying both softness and fineness, an ability to wrap around something without restraining it, to accent with richness. "Swelling" - rising up quickly to great volume or strength, but in a smooth growth, as opposed to a word like "bursting" (suddenness and explosive change), or "building" (a more evenly metered and deliberate increase). So using these elements of description, the pedal steel goes from being merely a present element to an active character in the narrative of the review - it is granted movement in the readers mind, and this allows a better picture of the whole.

So, try explaining the music you love to other people, not just describing what's in it, but what it does to you, what you see in it, how it makes you feel, what it makes you want to do. If a part of a song stands out in your mind, don't just catalog it as "a sitar solo" or "a cappella singing", but talk about what it seems to be doing in the context of the song itself. It's been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but in my opinion that just means that some suckas don't know how to dance.
posted by FatherDagon at 3:16 PM on January 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Something that helped me immeasurably as a critic was taking a class in college on audio production, especially the close-listening assignments. That meant listening to a song and picking out every track (instrument) and thinking about what each piece was doing.

That's what I'd recommend for getting better at talking about music—you first have to learn to listen to music at a detailed level, especially since from the things that confuse you, it sounds like you just don't have a very robust musical vocabulary.

The other thing to remember is that most music reviews are absolute crap.
posted by klangklangston at 4:03 PM on January 23, 2009

2 points:

(1) Look up every confusing word in the dictionary -- see above.

(2) Distinguish between (a) straightforward descriptions of what things sound like and (b) vague (or even meaningless) descriptions of the reviewer's personal impressions.

Does "swelling" refer to something specific? Yes, it means the sounds swell in and out -- they get a little louder or more intense.

Does "supple" refer to something specific? Not really, it's just the reviewer gushing about how great the music sounds.

Does "eerie" refer to something specific? This may be a grey area. It's more descriptive than "supple," but it's probably more subjective than "swelling." Try focusing on the organ with the word "eerie" in mind and see if you can relate to what the reviewer was experiencing.

I just made all that up on the spot -- I didn't read any of it in a book, and I kind of doubt there's a book that explains everything.

Remember, reviewers aren't gods. They're trying to make a living by churning out lots of words about music. If you read a review and are "confused" because it doesn't seem to describe the music well, you might not be confused; you might have just figured out that it's a poorly done review. In my opinion, a lot of reviews are absurdly overwritten because the reviewer is trying to show you what a brilliant bunch of words they can throw together, which doesn't necessarily have much to do with actually enjoying music.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:16 PM on January 23, 2009

Most of these terms are not jargon; they are metaphors and I'd encourage you to think of them that way. Use your imagination about how the usual meaning of those adjectives could be applied to sound. Apply the same sort of thought you would towards a literary depiction of a visual landscape, or whatever. The comments above already unpack those metaphors pretty well, actually.

The only thing that I might consider jargon is "singing several layers forward in the mix" and I'm not even sure it's used properly here. They just mean that the vocals are made to sound closer to the listener.

Though, "several layers forward" is actually kinda nonsensical from a mixing standpoint, which brings me to my next point -- many, many music journalists actually don't know much about the nuts and bolts of music, and that's often why their writing is confusing. They will use terms incorrectly, or invent terms. At its best, this kind of music journalism can be imagistic and literary; at its worst, it's pompous and impenetrable.

Here is a book I have heard good things about, though it probably won't help you write like a music reviewer.
posted by speicus at 4:58 PM on January 23, 2009

I am a musician by training and profession. What you have to do here is divorce opinion or subjective comments from the technical aspects of the music. These can either be the instruments used or the production techniques. So, with your examples:

"supple, swelling pedal steel"
Pedal Steel = Pedal Steel Guitar. This, the reviewer believes is supple and swelling. It's up to you to decide what that means when you listen to the track

"surf-inspired riffs"
I would imagine a tremolo (with a pick) guitar sound, like Dick Dale. Look up surf music.

"deep, rich tone, underscored by an eerie, shuddering organ."
Well, there's an organ there. The rest is probably subjective. When you listen to it, can you see what the reviewer means?

"singing several layers forward in the mix"
Hmmm... I guess this means that the vocals are present. The mix is what you're listening to, the composite of all the tracks, so this suggests that the singing is one of the most, if not the most important element...

There's jargon and then there's subjectivity. Once you know what the instruments are called and the the general jargon of music production you should be able to divide the two. Or, like Klangklangston said:

The other thing to remember is that most music reviews are absolute crap

which I quote for truth.
posted by ob at 9:26 PM on January 23, 2009

Most reviewers don't know shit about music. Even when they use technical musical terms with specific meanings, more often than not they are using them wrong. If they praise something for being unique or creative or pioneering, they only mean that they like it better than the predecessors that did the same thing decades beforehand.

As far as I am concerned, here is how to write a good review:

Listen to something multiple times, not all in the same sitting. Don't do other things while listening to it, or you may miss something you will later find important.

Notice some aspect of what is happening in the music that distinguishes it from other music you have heard before.

Notice something that happens in some part of the song that distinguishes that part of the song from the rest of the song.

Ask yourself if there is any significance to various features of the sound. Things that stay the same between the various artists of a genre, or between the various songs on an album, don't tell us as much as those things that do vary. You can picture this as a pallet or spectrum, with the extreme examples on either end (ie. fast songs vs. slow ones, loud bands vs. quiet ones).

People are usually using music as a way to express who they are - what does a person say about herself when she says "I like this kind of music". What kind of personality does this music imply, what sorts of interests?

Put all this together, and finally, just tell me about the music in a way such that if I were to walk into a party where it was playing, and I had not heard it before, I would actually be able to connect what I heard to the review.

Notice I made no mention of empty hyperbole, meaningless strings of obscure adjectives, poetic gushing, or bland generic dismissal - because these things are probably out of place in a decent review.
posted by idiopath at 4:00 AM on January 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

thank you everyone for your responses.

I feel more confident now knowing reviewing is much more subjective than I had previously thought and I'm not the only person who has to listen to an album 2-3+ times to really understand, absorb, and give a definite opinion on a record (I just thought it was my adhd..)
(After one listen, I can sometimes give a quick determination whether or not it's worthy of listening to ever again...)

If you haven't responded yet and want to, I encourage you. I won't mark any best answers for a few more days since the site has been and may not have allowed some people who wanted to respond but haven't yet.
posted by fizzix at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2009

Nthing all the comments above that it's important to learn the difference between the subjective parts of a review and the specific, technical parts.

I compare it to learning to appreciate and describe wine. I've read "intro to wine tasting" guides that suggest you take a sip and think about the flavors and come up with words of your own to try to communicate what you're tasting. When you say a wine is "woody" or has "notes of raspberry" or is "muscular", you don't mean there's actual wood or raspberry or muscles in the wine (although one wine might taste more of the barrel than another one does); you're just trying to come up with specific allusions that might help others understand how you're experiencing that flavor. (It can also be helpful to you as you develop greater appreciation of wine. You're standing in the wine aisle and thinking, "oh, right, I really liked that one with hints of hay and chocolate.")

To start learning some of the specifics of musical terminology, permit me to recommend the thoroughly awesome Alan Pollack musical analysis of Beatles songs. In the first one, "We Can Work It Out", he points out the form. Lots of people listen to music without thinking about form at all. You'll also learn about appoggiatura. On "Eight Days A Week", he discusses differences in the arrangement at different points in the song (drums, handclaps, harmonies).

Finally, talk to some of your musically knowledgeable friends and get their opinions about really good music writers. If you ever develop an interest in classical music, I highly recommend Joshua Kosman. His recent review of Prokofiev's Fifth is a pretty good example - my knowledge of classical music is limited, but I can read what he's written and understand pretty specifically what worked, in his informed opinion, and what didn't, and why.
posted by kristi at 2:43 PM on January 25, 2009

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