Essay on Music: Topics, Outline, Tips

There is an elephant in the room – writing essays about music. I remember an old saying about our topic, presumably by Frank Zappa. You probably know it. It goes like: Speaking about music is like dancing about architecture. That’s all you really need to know about music writing, especially the commodified popular kind of music writing.

You can’t write about music. Even if you try hard enough – you only get some sort of glorified substitute instead of a real thing.

That is something you just need to admit. And go on. Because there are so many interesting things to be done in essay on music beyond just writing about it as it is…

That was an intro.

What’s the problem with essays about music?
In short – music essay is not a thing that can be done by simply describing of your listening experience. There are numerous factors that affect your perception. Your personal taste is the biggest. It is defined by a myriad of factors, but we are straying too far. You have different words for something you like and something you don’t understand. Even your mood differs the perception. Let’s take a simple example. Once you’re in the bad mood and hear a song and hate it. Then you feel fine and hear that song again and you love it. You know the score, the nature of the genre, but there is this feeling and you can’t go around it.

The human element in music writing is widely ignored as if the reviewer was not a person but a functional object – something that offers you the product for consideration. Weird, huh? Some people get to write about things they don’t understand and that affects the perception of those who will read their scribble and think that the topic is rubbish and pass it on without ever considering to give it a chance. And it happens all the time.

Nevertheless, the issue of impossibility of writing an essay about music is widely ridiculed and deemed as a futile grumbling of squares and snobs and trolls who have nothing else to do. Why it is impossible? There are every day thousands and thousands of various music-related articles are produced to entertain you for a moment before you switch to something else. Music industry is playing hard on this and thus defending the illusion that it is all right.

Here is the menacing you can see among those faceless hordes of texts:

none of them really explain anything;
they repeat what you already know;
they’re make the topic insignificant;
You see it and fell you can say to yourself nah! ok, let’s move on – that’s it. Next!.
If you think about it – that’s ridiculous. It makes no sense. And yet – casual essay on music exists and even blooms on a moment of a click and, possible, a scroll-through. The question of quality of content is never brought up for real. Because who cares. It is just a trifle for a nonce, who needs a bit of Dickens in it? You get a click bait, a non-article about nothing in particular, an elaborately composed lorem ipsum of common places and conventions. You don’t get anything new, you don’t get a fresh take on an old joke. You get more of the same – again and again and again. That’s where we are now. Lo and behold! The world of content-creators who play on the inattentiveness and careless of a casual reader.

That distracts us from the important thing.

Why music is important?
There are lots of quotes of the greats about the importance of music in general and in particular cases. There is no need to recount all of them. But there is a need to explain why music is important in the first place.

There is an air of mystery surround the concept of music. There are so many ways to understand it and every time it you can get something new out it. Music is the unique form of human expression. Other creatures can create musical sounds, even entire compositions – only human had managed to put some sort of order in it and make something more than just another form of expression. Music surrounded people from the beginning, it helped them to get through rough times, it helped to express their ideas, explore otherworldly realms, to tell stories, to remember moments.

Chances are that this is our ultimate form of communication – the one that will lead us to infinity and beyond. Do you remember how in Close Encounters of the Third Kind aliens communicated with us through the simple notation? That’s it. The wonder of making the connections with simple sounds combined in harmonies composing melodies – is breathtaking. It is something you need to remember while writing an essay about music.

Secret to writing an essay on music that matters
If you care about music as a concept, as an art form, if you want to make difference – you need to accept the impossibility of writing about music in a finite, definite way. Music is too abstract, too vaguely defined to be talked in any terms available to human comprehension. With that in mind you can do whatever you want under the banner of writing about music.

As I have said before – there are so many interesting things to be explored instead of simple retreading of common places. You can describe your personal experiences (the most common things in the music writing), you can explore the background behind a certain aesthetic movement, curious episodes behind certain events, you can define and redefine the undercurrents of a certain music composition – anything you want. Just make it new.

Make it different from the other texts on a topic. Do not do the retreads – do the strand. That’s all you need to do. It may seem hard – but it is easy if you try.

How to write an essay about music?
It’s truly an awkward moment when you realize that you have no idea about how to write an essay about music. It seems like everyone can write about it and yet there’s rarely a piece that can give you some sort of understanding what the certain music is, where did come from and most importantly what it represents.

Here’s a quick rundown on credentials.To write good essay about music you need to be prepared and stick to the initial plan. No new features creep into the text. Just barebones basics. Usually it looks looks like this:

get an idea for the text. it might be anything – lets call it an inciting accident.
make a little research. get all the materials you need. listen to it thoroughly. get your hands on every piece of criticism and analysis about the subject.
make a structure for the text. most common is three-part. In the beginning you explain your reasoning. Then you explore the topic, usually in a gradual manner. In the end you summarize the whole thing.
after finishing the draft i usually let it lay low and cool down and then revisit. This gives you a chance to distance yourself from the text so that you can see if there are any significant problems with it.
Common problems with essays about music
Lack of quality in texts about music usually happens because three mistakes.

Misunderstanding the purpose of the text
While it may seem strange – writer can inadvertently think that his text comes first and its subject goes second. After all – when you need to explain something you may try a bit too hard. This leads to a situation best described all style – no substance.

While there are exclusions to the rule (Lester Bangs was the master of a non-article) – one must focus on the subject and present all the information the reader might need about it and not stylistic flourishes that might remind the reader about unholy alliance of Faulkner and Hemingway. You need to give the reader the impression of the subject and a chance to make up his own mind – not to drown the reader in ramble-tumble doll-dugga-doo-doo-ziggety-zag around nothing.

Lack of efficiency in music theory
Another problem that plagues lots of music writing is lack of efficiency in theoretical underpinnings of music as a concept.

While most of the modern music is really just verse-chorus-verse – there are many other things worth knowing. All those scary words: caesura, staccato, ostinato, prelude, coda, interlude, solo, vocalizes – they matter, they give the substantive boost to the credibility of your text.

When writer simply has no idea what music is built upon and what elements it consists of – thus comes the vague, often poetic descriptions that adds nothing to the text but bloat it beyond reason to the point of complete loss of interest.

Since there’s a thing called Internet and you find anything there – get your crash-course of music theory before you start to write. It will seriously improve your understanding of the subject thus making it more credible in the eyes of those who know thing or two about music.

Overabundance of opinion
Third and most irritating mistake is double-edged sword of personal-objective arguments.

There are two ways of writing about music. One is by describing your personal experience with a glimpses of general context. The majority of popular music writing is based upon that. You need to describe your experience with the piece of music and put it into general context – whether it is a historical moment or a myriad of aesthetic influences that make the picture.

Second requires some heavy lifting since you need to explain the aesthetic and historical background, set the scene and actors (those who made it) and deconstruct the whole thing from start to finish from several points of view (holy three of conceptual, historical and down to earth). That’s a lot of work and eats a lot of time. But it pays off since this way will make your text more durable, unlike the disposable one-off reviews.

Do you have any thoughts about ways of writing essays about music? Tell us in the comments! Don’t forget to spread the word and bring your friends. It’s always cooler to have a thorough debate.