A Guide to Reviewing Music
How to offer constructive feedback and bring someone’s music to the next level?
In our times of information overflow, more and more opinion makers are trying to convince us reviewing music is becoming a forgotten art. With basically every release available for full digital stream the second it’s released, people can make their own mind without having to rely on somebody else’s expertise. So why should you learn how to give feedback to somebody else’s music?
It’s a simple answer. Music has always been a means of communication and not just a product you consume and then quickly move onto the next one. Music is a powerful way to express and convey emotions, messages, and feelings. It can change one’s life and if you’re reading this, we guess, it has already changed yours.
However, to reach the point where your skills meet your ideas is a lengthy process. You definitely don’t want to go on this path alone. The self-sufficient musical geniuses are a numbered few and the rest of us… Well, we need to constantly improve and challenge ourselves to remain exciting for our listeners. We need to help each other. Reviewing music also hides unsuspected benefits for the reviewer himself. It gives you better knowledge of the art you’re practicing and exploring. Believe it or not, by reviewing music we become better composers, songwriters, musicians even sound engineers ourselves.
Let’s see how we can be better at giving constructive feedback to our fellow artists.
Read music reviews. A lot of them.
This one is a must, especially for people who have never dared to write about somebody else’s music. It’s still a must even if you consider yourself good at writing. Reading is just like music, you can never have too much of it in your life. Reading other people’s thoughts about music will help you adopt the language you are expected to use when reviewing music. Remember, the purpose of writing a review is not about showing how good of a writer are you. This is not a literature class. You are reviewing music to help an artist improve themselves or let them know how they did a great job.
Know yourself and your tastes
Become clear about your own musical and technical preferences. Ask yourself why do you like what you like? To be a good reviewer means to be consistent both in your remarks and about the music you are interested in. It’ okay to be biased and subjective, because everybody is and actually this is what gives reviews a personality. However, you should still try to be as objective as possible.
Make sure you are familiar with the genres you’ll be working with. You’ve devoted your life studying classical music? Let this be your expertise and not punk rock for example. However, if you’re knowledgeable about a plethora of genres go for them all. You might have been focused on metal music, but this doesn’t mean you can’t have something to say about a jazz piece. Right?
Get to know the artist you are reviewing
Always start with a background check of the artist you are reviewing. Play their back catalog, get to know their music in details. Compare it to previous works if you have to. Check who is this person, where do they come from, how long have they been involved in music. The answers to these questions will add context to the music. This will allow you to further understand the artist’s point of view and will justify the track’s aesthetics, compositional choices, style of lyrics writing etc. If that’s your first encounter with the artist, or their music is too obscure to research and find you might want to inform your readers about that.
Now listen. Again. And again.
Put the track on and give it as many spins as possible. Listen until you feel comfortable and acquainted enough with the music to start inspecting it. No skipping, no background listening, no multitasking. Some of the worst reviews we’ve read have been bad not because somebody had something to criticize the music for but because they simply missed the point of the music. You don’t want to be one of these reviewers.
Is it a demo, is it a finished track
Make yourself familiar with the type of track you are reviewing. If you’re handed a demo you might not be too critical of its production, you might want to focus on the music instead. If the track is basically ready to be released you have to definitely focus not only on its musical qualities but on the production as well.
Separate your taste from the quality of the music
This is a crucial part of determining the direction of the review, of your tone and of the output in general. Yes, you might not be a pop music fan but you have to be able to recognize a good pop song when you hear it.
If you already like the song it might be easier to explain why. However, like it or not, you somehow have to justify your opinion through careful inspection of the track’s melodies, chord progressions, harmonic choices, rhythmic structure and arrangement.
This goes for any section of the track. A piece can have a great chorus but a somehow weaker verse, you have to learn to spot these imbalances and address them. Once again the purpose this music is meant to serve is key. Don’t judge a depressive black metal track for being to monotonous, that’s part of the its game.
Focus on the lyrics
If the piece features vocals there’s more to this than melodies. You have to ask yourself do the words do their job. Do they convey a message do they make you feel something, do they make you sing them to yourself? Are they understandable? Sometimes finding the right words, especially for the chorus, makes a huge difference whether the song will be accepted and play on repeat or buried in oblivion.
Like it or not, nowadays musicians have to be competent enough with the technical side of things as well. This means you need to have a grasp at what good sound is. Yes, often our favorite tracks are terribly underproduced but this doesn’t always work. If an artist is aimed at conquering the radio stations you have to let them know a demo done on a 4-track recorder might not exactly bring them a Grammy. Just like with the musical side of things there’s a ton of things for you to consider.
Start with inspecting if all instruments are balanced and equally hearable, check if the vocals are understandable and not squashed. See if the mix is dynamic and not compressed beyond recognition, see if the panning is spatial, organic and if it fits the arrangement. Last but not least, ask yourself do all these production choices do the idea and the message of the music justice. A gentle rock ballad might not need an overproduced pop sound, it might be a bit rougher on the edges. Learn to know which sound fits which music style.
Keep an eye for the details
Look for something that helps the song stand out, maybe tiny details like samples, electronics, field recordings or even some noise accidentally captured during the recording. Maybe even inspect the lyrics for interesting references. Talk about those and let the artists and your readers why are they cool or not.
Some people like to be compared with their favorite artists but listeners don’t really want to hear the new Jimi Hendrix, they want to hear a new and interesting artist. Be careful with name-dropping, especially if you tend to do this excessively. With the amount of music already available in the world there’s a high chance that a track reminds you of something else, but always try to inspect if this is something you’d like to expose, especially when writing public reviews.
Be serious but do not overdo it
Words have an incredible power. Just one simple sentence can make or brake somebody and this directly influences the quality of the music they are about to show the world. Be responsible about your words just as you are responsible about your actions. You never know what kind of person is on the other side of the line. Still, if you’re handed a demo track don’t feel obliged to go for the big words. Just make sure you mind your words and focus on being constructive and helpful.
Be balanced in your feedback
Even if a track is a complete nonsense you have to remain neutral. Don’t be negative be professional. Double check if there’s not a single good thing that can be said and then list all your issues with the track. Being too positive also doesn’t look serious enough. There’s always something that can be improved in somebody’s music. However, you might note this as a personal opinion or advice and not something the artist should definitely do. Feel free to offer your readers ‘the sandwich’ feedback. Pick two good things and slide between them something you don’t really like. It makes it easier to accept the criticism.
Now that you’ve explored some of the main points of reviewing music it’s time you started doing it. We promise through reviewing you’ll meet many inspiring artists and will progress in your own music as well. Go for it!