Anton spent 3 years working at an online music magazine as a writer, interviewer, photographer, editor, and eventually co-editor-in-chief.
Putting music into words can be a rather daunting task. The sounds are like magic, intangible, fleeting, and intrinsically infinite. So, how does one describe such wizardry? How does one transcribe a universe of patterns and emotional contrition into words?
Well, I can’t show you the guts of the mechanism, but I can offer you a few tips on how to operate it. The rest is up to you.
During my time as a writer at an online music magazine, most of my assignments consisted of doing album reviews for a multitude of hard rock and metal sub-genres. I came across both good and bad records. Yet, my opinion of them had no merit unless I could put it into words and argue my individual point.
Tips to Writing an Album Review
- Keep It Tight
- Focus on Structure
- Think About Dynamics
- Remember, Someone Had to Say It
- Develop a Style
- Stay Neutral
- Think Outside the Box
- Listen Beyond the Music
As I trudged on through piles of notes and rhythms, I developed certain traits and techniques that helped me approach every album with the appropriate set of tools for their dissection—tools that helped me deliver an eloquent, yet concise critique of a particular musical compilation. And, even though I am currently on an indefinite hiatus from the scenes of music journalism, I enjoy spreading wisdom about the workings of this wonderful medium. Therefore, following the publication of a brief guide on interviewing professional musicians (see the link at the bottom of the page), I decided to also offer up some insights on how to put music into words when reviewing a record. So, pop that tape in and let's have at it.
1. Keep It Tight
No one wants to read a 2000-word socio-philosophical tractate on how a particular record relates to Theodore Adorno’s opinions on popular music. The saturation of the music market means that there is a plethora of albums out there to discuss, and only a select few may be worthy of such cultural dissertations. Thus, keep it sweet, but brief. A solid 450-500 words should do.
A review can most certainly be overwrought, and if you go through every single song in excruciating detail, you run the risk of loosing track of your reader and the overall discourse. Group songs together when punctuating a particular point and single out those that deserve particular attention.
2. Focus on Structure
You are to lead your reader, not dump them into a ball pit of scattered information. Just like any comprehensive piece of writing, your review should have an introduction, a main body of discussion, and a conclusion. Sorting it into these blocks will also make it easier to write. When writing about something as mercurial as music, control is paramount.
3. Think About Dynamics
Regardless of the genre, when describing something as dynamic as music, your writing should compliment the sound. Adjust your tone to fit the types of music that are resonating from your speakers. Remember, you’re not only painting with words, you’re playing an accompaniment with them. Use rhythm, use virtuosity, or whatever is in your skill set. Imagine the listener is reading your review along with the music; make them feel it.
4. Remember, Someone Had to Say It
On some occasions, you will have to play the bad guy. No one likes to trash talk a work of art (regardless of its aesthetic quality), but there are times when someone has to pull the trigger on an album. While your opinion may be chastised, if it’s justified, it will earn you respect from your peers and turn you from an amateur into a real critic.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.
5. Develop a Style
You may already have a writing style of your own (and that’s great), but I’m not employing this point so that people instantly recognize that talented wordsmith who has written the review. No. After all, you must not forget that it is about the music, not you. Yes, your review should compliment it, but it must not overshadow it. The reason I advise you to develop a particular reviewing style is because you’re going to be writing a lot of reviews (if this is indeed something that you’re passionate about) and it will make it much easier to handle the volume if you already have a strategy in place—your modus operandi.
6. Stay Neutral
This is a very important one. An album review is a place for objective opinions, not indoctrinated bias. Granted, when the music is up to your preference, you’re going to advocate its virtues at every cost. But, when you’re writing for a publication, your editor-in-chief will slip you records that you’re not fanatical about. Nonetheless, you will have to give them the same amount of attention as the others. Of course, if they’re bad, feel free to tear them a new one. But, regardless of the displeasure they may cause to your eardrums, you have to stay professional, keep cool, and grit your teeth through the process. That’s what it’s all about. And, if you don’t like the genre, the message, or the ostentatious frontman, well, tough luck.
7. Think Outside the Box
There are only so many times you can say things like, “cool riff,” “soaring chorus,” and “rhythmic drumming.” After writing 15 reviews or so of musical platitudes, you may become self-conscious of repeating the same old descriptions—and that’s good.
This is where your creative-writing side will become indispensable. Listen to the music, assign it a theme, create a world through it, and use the elements of that world to describe what you hear. Not only will this make the whole process more enjoyable and interesting, it will provide you with an opportunity to stand out over your peers.
8. Listen Beyond the Music
There’s more to it than notes on a page and vibrations in the air. When reviewing an album, you should not only talk about its melodic qualities, but also its overall artistic essence. Pay attention to the concepts, the themes, and the metaphors; peel back the layers. Try to understand what the artist is trying to communicate through their work. Remember, this is their voice, and they want you to hear it. So, pay attention to the details, reach deep into that record, and eviscerate its essence.
So, there you have it. An album review is a canvas on which you paint your own interpretation of an artist’s work. So, do it justice and truly express how it makes you feel. I can’t tell you how to do that, all I can do is offer these tips—the rest is up to you. Just remember that when reviewing a record, it is important to dive right into it. Music should engulf you like an oncoming wave. So, it's only right to let your words splash onto the page in much the same vein. So, go on, get in that ocean.