Suggestions for Writing About Music*

Two difficulties generally arise when asked to write about music. The first is that most undergraduate students have insufficient writing experience of any sort. This problem is best overcome by taking more English composition and writing a multitude of papers for various courses of study. The second problem is that most students do not know what subject material to address during their discourse. This often results from lack of sufficient understanding of basic musical concepts, vocabulary to describe musical events, or just taking time to consider music in any depth. The latter is like window shopping and only seeing the plate-glass window on the outside of the store. You have to look beyond the glass to see what the store is displaying just "beyond" the surface of the window. Furthermore, you have to go into the store to really find what marvelous merchandise it has to offer. The richest and most interesting merchandise is inside because there is limited room to display everything in the windows.

When working through an analysis project, there are a number of musical features that can be identified by Roman numerals, figured bass symbols, cadence labels, non-harmonic tone labels, key and mode labels, etc. Often these refer to the surface features of the piece. You don't need to recapitualate all of them in a running prose commentary of the piece. This is not a sports event and you are not Howard Kossel. Don't give a "blow-by-blow" description of the piece.

So what should you discuss? Those surface features which help you to demonstrate the points you are making in the paper are useful to include, in addition to the following:

Before discussing the relevant and appropriate musical features, consider your general writing style. Your paper is an informative discourse on a selection of music. It is not a chatty commentary. Nobody cares how the music makes you feel or whether you like the piece per se --stick to the facts. However your aesthetic response is a good reason to focus on particular attributes, qualities, passages, etc. A passage may make you feel sad, tell the reader about the structural features that cause this response and explain why these features may provoke such a reaction.

Write and rewrite so that your presentation is as clear and concise as possible. Avoid unnecessary words and get rid of the clutter. Get a friend--several friends, a teacher--to read through your paper. Have them tell you if your discussion is terse, yet lucid and thorough. If it isn't, where does it need to be revised? Ask them to be specific and appropriately critical (critical does not mean condescending). The only way you can develop your writing and analytic skills is through honest criticism and rewriting. Therefore, do not wait until the last day to write your paper.

ASSUME the best grammar, use of language, syntax, and spelling--e.g. avoid passive tense, and dangling participles.

Specific items to consider: In your own paper you may need to write at length about all of these items or perhaps only a few.

*I don't remember who wrote the original document upon which this is based, but I have revised it somewhat--P. Collaros


E-mail Pandel Collaros