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What this handout is about

This handout features common types of music assignments and offers strategies and resources for writing them.

Writing about music

Elvis Costello once famously remarked that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” While he may have been overstating the case, it is often difficult to translate the non-verbal sounds that you experience when you listen to music into words. To make matters more difficult, there are a variety of ways to describe music:

  1. You can be technical and use terms from music theory. Example: “The cadential pattern established in the opening 16 bars is changed by a phrasal infix of two bars (mm. 22–24), thus prolonging the dominant harmony in the third phrase.”
  2. You can describe your feelings and personal reactions to the music. Example: “I felt that the chorus of the song was more gripping than the opening.”
  3. You can try to give a play-by-play description of what’s happening in the music. Example: “The saxophone soloist played a lot of scales in his improvisation, and the pianist added sparse chords to it.”

Without an extensive knowledge of music theory, you will most likely wind up doing a combination of 2 and 3. However, in all of these examples, you are only describing the music. Most music professors want you to analyze it. (So what if the dominant is prolonged? What is the effect and meaning of this?) How your description of music becomes an analysis of music depends on the kind of assignment you are answering. Consult our handout on understanding assignments for help in getting started.

Making an argument about music

Often, you will be asked to make an argument about a particular piece of music. In its most basic form, this is a statement about the piece with evidence that persuades your reader to agree with your argument. Clearly presenting your overall argument will help you organize your information around that main point. See our handout on argument.

For example, if you are writing about the historical importance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you might develop an argument like this:

“Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, completed and first performed in 1824, is historically significant because of the ways that it challenged and expanded audiences’ expectations of symphonic structure.”

If this is your argument, then you should research what the audience expectations for a symphony might have been in 1824 based on other pieces of the time. How many movements did symphonies typically have? What were their formal structures? What were the performing forces? Once you understand the expectations of the day, you can identify the specific ways that Beethoven’s Ninth is different as well as what specific moments of the work (the entrance of the choir, the grand recapitulation which begins the last movement, etc.) you can cite as evidence for your argument. As you can see, making an argument in music involves historical or cultural evidence AND specific observations about the piece itself which combine to give a richly textured picture of the music and the composer, as well as the context from which they both emerged.

Even when making evaluative or interpretive claims about music, you should always provide evidence to support your claims. Music often evokes strong emotions in listeners, but these may not be the same for everyone. Music that you experience as “powerful” or “triumphant” may be experienced by another listener as “angry” or “violent.” Giving specific examples from the music will help explain your emotional reactions and give your reader a context for understanding them. For example, instead of saying

“The chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds angrier than the verses,’ you might argue that, “The added distortion in the guitar, increase in volume, and additional strain on Kurt Cobain’s voice give the chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an angrier or more critical tone than the verses.”

Musical terminology

On occasion, or in some assignments, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of technical vocabulary used to describe even the simplest musical gestures. Over the past thousand years, the study of music (particularly Western classical music) has acquired a host of specialized terms from Latin, Italian, German, and French, many of which remain untranslated in common usage. Do not be intimidated! If you have questions about these terms, ask your instructor or consult a reliable music dictionary. Typically the terms that will be most helpful to you and most essential in your writing will be ones that have been covered in class and explained in the textbook.

In addition to all the terms that you DO want to use, musical discourse also comes with some terms that professors and TAs might find particularly unhelpful. Generally these include casual value judgments such as  “good,” “bad,” “lame,” “awesome,” “girly,” “soulful,” etc. These words may be fine when discussing an album with your friends, but they are not acceptable descriptors in academic writing. The most glaring of these words, however, and the one that your instructors will undoubtedly be on the lookout for is “authenticity” (and its close relatives “authentic,” “real,” genuine,” etc.). Instructors are particularly bothered by this word for two reasons:

  1. “Authenticity” is bound by a whole host of cultural and historical assumptions that make it impossible to pinpoint with any accuracy. Music that is considered “authentic” by one person might be considered deeply inauthentic to another and vice-versa. Similarly, music that was considered “authentic” by a group of fans in the 1960s may have lost its “authenticity” in the 1980s, but may have enjoyed a newfound “authenticity” in the early 2000s.
  2. “Authenticity” is not a claim about the substance of the music. Describing a performer as “authentic” is shorthand for referring to one’s personal conception of how musicians should look, sound, and act. What was it, specifically, that led you to interpret a particular artist as authentic? Was it an effective use of anti-commercial rhetoric in their lyrics or public persona? Was it their references to a particular tradition of music-making such as “folk” or “the blues”?

Examining the ways in which a particular style, band, or song came to be understood as “authentic” by its fans can be a valuable subject of inquiry, but any time you come across the word—in your or someone else’s writing—you should imagine it in scare quotes and try to more closely examine what the author is trying to say with the word in that particular context.

Common music assignments

Concert report

You may have the opportunity to attend a live concert and report on it. Pay careful attention to the types of questions in the prompt. This is different from a music review in which you pass judgment on how “well” the players performed. Your professor might be okay with you adding your opinion, but most professors want you to listen closely to the music and try to describe it as accurately as possible using some of the vocabulary you’ve learned in class. A typical prompt usually asks for information about the performance venue, the performers, the music itself, and quite possibly your reactions to it. Make sure your report answers all of the questions!

Strategies: Read through the concert program. Sometimes there are program notes that provide background information and formal discussion of the music. This might act as a model for your own report. If your “concert” is more like a jazz jam session, you may not know the names of any of the pieces you hear. Sometimes you can just pick out your favorite performances to discuss. Elements to listen for might include (but are not limited to) instrumentation, variety of pieces performed, interaction of the performers, the setting (size, type, and location of the venue, acoustics of the space, etc.), audience reaction, and your own subjective interpretation.

Historical analysis: placing a piece in context

You may encounter this assignment in a music history or appreciation course. An instructor might ask you to pick a piece of music and discuss its historical context. This usually requires research, whether on the composer, the original performance, or the historical meaning. Sometimes you will be asked to relate the music itself to its historical setting. You may also need to make an argument about the piece. See our handout on writing history papers.

For example, you could write a paper relating how Mozart’s 1778 visit to Paris affected the compositions he wrote while there.

Strategies: Make sure you feel comfortable with the basic historical information before beginning an analysis. If you don’t know exactly what Mozart did and when, you will have trouble making any kind of argument.

If you are crafting an argument about how music relates to historical circumstances, then you should discuss those musical elements that most clearly support your argument. A possible thesis might be “Because Mozart wanted a job in Paris, he wrote a symphony designed to appeal to Parisian tastes.” If that is your argument, then you would focus on the musical elements that support this statement, rather than other elements that do not contribute to it. For example, “Though his Viennese symphonies featured a repeated exposition, Mozart did not include a repeat in the symphonies he composed in Paris, which conformed more closely to Parisian ideas about musical form at the time.” This observation might be more helpful to your argument than speculation about what he ate in Paris and how that influenced his compositional process.

Song analysis

How do the music and text (a song’s lyrics, an opera’s libretto) work together? You may complete this assignment for a music history or appreciation class. You should aim to make an argument about the song in question, using both text and music to support your claims.

Strategies: Look at how the text is set to music. This often requires you to first examine the text. Is it in a regular poetic form on its own? Does it have some type of pattern or other play with words? What is the meaning of the text? For more on word play and rhyme schemes, see our handout on poetry explications.

Now look at the text and listen to the music with it. Does the composer set it in an unusual way for the genre? Does the music seem to fit with the general meaning of the text, or does it seem to be at odds with it? Does the composer bring out certain words or lines of text? Why?

For example, you might say, “In the chorus of ‘Poses,’ Rufus Wainwright sets his first line of text to a long, arching melody, reminiscent of opera.” This describes the music and lets the reader know what part you are talking about and how you are hearing it (it reminds you of opera). Now tell the reader what is significant about this. What does it do for the meaning of the text? “The text suggests that ‘you said watch my head about it,’ but this rising operatic melody seems to suggest that the singer is really floating away and gone into another world.” Now your description of the music functions as evidence in an argument about how the song has two layers of meaning (text and music).

If you can do more theoretical music analysis, this might be a good opportunity to look at how the harmonies and phrase structures do or do not line up with the text. “Schubert sets the regular metrical pattern of the text to even four-bar phrases until he gets to the line ‘Ich will den Boden kuessen’ (I want to kiss the ground), whereupon it changes dramatically from there.” Once again, go further by explaining how this observation helps us understand the meaning of the text. “This technique extends the time spent on these lines and makes it seem like the singer is so frantically trying to reach green earth (through the snow), that he can’t maintain a steady pattern. He is overcome by desperate emotion when he thinks of seeing the ground again.” Now you have elucidated a moment in the music that casual listeners might have missed, and you have told them how, and why, it heightens the meaning of the text.

Performance/media comparison

For this assignment, you will compare different performances of a piece, different stagings of an opera, or different settings of a story (e.g. a stage version of an opera versus its movie adaptation). See our handout on comparing/contrasting for more tips on this type of assignment.

Strategies: Make sure you know the basic work before you begin comparing different versions of it. If you are comparing different instrumentalists’ or singers’ interpretations of a piece of music, then familiarize yourself with the piece. Listen to many different versions until you feel comfortable with it. Then you can focus on whatever elements of the individual performance the professor asks you to analyze (tempo, rubato, inflection, articulation, tone color, vibrato, etc.). Make sure you are familiar with these basic elements of music as well. Then ask yourself, what is the overall effect of the different performances? Do they interpret the piece differently? If they are not distinct in terms of overall interpretation, how are they different? How are these differences significant to your understanding or experience of the piece? Now you can use your musical elements to explain why.  Remember to go beyond simply listing differences and similarities by making an argument about the music and its significance.

Let’s say you were asked to compare two performances of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations: one recorded by Glenn Gould in 1955 and the second recorded by Jory Vinikour in 2001. You might observe that Gould’s performance is significantly faster than Vinikour’s and that Gould does not always repeat each section as the score indicates. How does Vinikour’s decision to play more slowly and with more repeats impact your experience of the piece? What might this tell you about the approach that Vinikour takes to Bach’s music versus the approach that Gould takes? You might also observe that Gould’s performance is on the piano while Vinikour’s is on the harpsichord. How does the instrumentation affect your experience of the piece? Is it historically significant that the two performers chose different instruments? Does this tell us something about the status of Baroque-period performance in the 1950s versus Baroque performance in the early 2000s?

In the case of opera, there are more elements beyond the music to take into consideration. Your assignment might ask you to focus on the staging (costume, set design, lighting, action). Remember that just as a play may be produced in different ways, there is no one “correct” staging of an opera. Some may be very traditional and attempt to portray the setting and time period used in the libretto (text). Others may try to make social commentary by “updating” the scenario to something that seems more relevant today. Others may try to comment upon the opera/story itself by making even more avant-garde productions.

For example, a production of Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) might be set in Egypt in 47 BC, as it is in the original storyline. Or a modern opera producer and stage designer might collaborate and “update” it to appear to be about a Western superpower in the Middle East. Same exact text and music, different costumes, set design, lighting, and on-stage action. Does one production seem more believable to you? Does one make you think about the implications of the story more than the other?

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial. We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Bellman, Jonathan. 2007. A Short Guide to Writing About Music, 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman.

Herbert, Trevor. 2009. Music in Words: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Holoman, D. Kern. 2014. Writing About Music: A Style Sheet, 3rd ed. Oakland: University of California Press.

Wingell, Richard. 2009. Writing About Music: An Introductory Guide, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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