Writing About Music

Identifying the Assignment

One of the key issues in writing about music is identifying the nature of the assignment. Is it asking you to do highly technical writing, discuss the life of a composer, describe your feelings when hearing a piece for the first time, describe a composer’s influences? All of these varied forms of writing can technically be ‘music writing.’ Therefore, it’s crucial to decide what kind of writing you are being asked to do and stick to it!

Identifying the Audience

The writer must understand the desired function of the prospective piece of writing. As with understanding the assignment, it's important to know who will be reading your paper and use the appropriate language, technical terminology, and the like. 

Establishing a Knowledge-Base

Depending on the audience and assignment a varied degree of technical knowledge of music may be required. Depending on your own proficiency and the demands of the assignment, you may or may not need to use a great deal of musical jargon. In an assignment discussing the life of a composer, for instance, it may not be useful to become familiar with abstract music theory. However, a paper that discusses a composer’s work with a higher degree of sophistication will require at least some discussion of the theory behind the composer’s music. 

Kinds of Writing

As previously discussed, there are many genres that can fall under the category of ‘music writing.’  The following categories more closely define the expected style of writing.      

Biographical/Historical

This style discusses the composer’s life and times (the people and circumstances behind a piece of music). The goal is to contextualize the music and the composer’s temporal influences. This is perhaps the most accessible type of writing on music, and is often a staple in intro-level classes. These papers tend to be more like history papers than anything else. 

Style Study

These kinds of papers specify sub-classifications within a broader genre. For example, neo-classicism or minimalism, etc, as manifestations of 20th century art music. Papers need to explicitly break down style characteristics, the “raw components” of the music. Papers like this may require more technical information than historical papers.

Analysis

This involves exploration of the structure and symmetry of musical form. This is often highly technical writing that demands a firm grasp of music theory analysis and its applications.

Performance Study

These papers focus on specific performers or performances, and are typically more scholarly then a performance review.  An example of this style could be a paper discussing different approaches to performance of Mozart piano concertos.

Organological Study 

The style focuses on the historical study of musical instruments.  The writer may need to discuss the ‘musical alphabet,’ and how it relating historical instruments to various tuning systems, for instance. This approach requires a basic understanding of the history of music, and the use of music in various cultures.

Argumentation

Unlike other types of writing, writing about music is not necessarily highly argumentative.  The degree of controversy depends on the assignment and the audience in question.

Evidence

Obviously, you will want to back up your assertions with the appropriate evidence. However, the evidence you choose to use should be tailored to the assignment, genre, and audience with which you are working. In some cases, this may require the use of highly technical evidence and literal quotations from sheet music. On the other hand, it may involve the use of historical, anecdotal, or other types of non-musical forms of evidence.

--The Writing Center thanks Seth Custer for contributing this handout.