How the heck do you critique music, and why would I listen to your opinion?

I have a confession to make: I have almost no idea what I’m doing when I review music. I’m not a trained musician, beyond old memories from grade and high-school band class, twiddling on my harmonicas or singing loudly to myself (I did watch some videos on how to sing on Youtube..?), and the occasional discussion of technique and sound and whatnot with the hubs who actually writes music and plays instruments; he even records and mixes these days.

My musical education, missing only the clarinet and saxophone my school wouldn’t let me keep…

So where do I get off doing this, uneducated fool I be? What right do I have to critique anything?

I educate myself deeply.

A deep love of learning drives me to seek out information on anything I don’t understand from the ground-up the moment I don’t know something, so there’s that I guess. I do things like read books on the neuroscience and psychology behind music. I go looking for experts and other obsessives and put my language-teacher skills to use to really understand obscure or specific terms I don’t know: djent, syncopated rhythm, poly-rhythm, arpeggiated licks, the list goes one and will have to be a post of it’s own… And while I don’t have music school experience, a biology education requires you learn to absorb vast amounts of information and organize it, then analyze. I enjoy that. I don’t teach grammar because I hate analyzing it…

Yea, my photos of dissection from zoology are sadly gone (no shark brain for you), but here are some lovely minerals from Earth Sciences I enjoyed in such a weird way. This was a great way of taking notes for mineral quizzes!

I love complex/obscure patterns.

Similarly, I tend to enjoy thinking about and breaking down complicated stuff like, “Why would motion sickness even exist? What evolutionary benefit does it lend an organism, or does it stem from some other response that is weirdly related in form, if not method of acquisition?” Yea, that’s my thing. With music, I’ll spend an entire album play-through focusing on one instrument to see how it’s used to give form, feeling and depth to a song. This is surprisingly fun and you start to SEE how the bass line is beefing up the guitar or drums or how a specific synth in the background can give a song an eerie feeling even when the rest is so happy and upbeat… Looking at you, Cockroach King. <3<3<3

I’m “into” music.

I also really get to know an album. Really. I listen to things I like obsessively: an album I consider “really good” may get months or even years of listens. How many? Well, perhaps my oldest album love is Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle. Now, if I calculate quickly: received copy at 14ish, listened once daily till I was 16 (365×2=730 listens), then played at least twice weekly till 18 (52x2x2=202), and still listen at least once every two months since then (6×14=84), so 730+202+84= 1016 listens or so. And I get sentimental and still go on occasional listening binges. So yea. That being said, I also enjoy variety and will push myself to listen to at least one new album twice or three times a week at this point, pulling them from friends, r/progmetal, and Google’ Play Music’s suggestions at times. Depth AND breadth, ooooo.

From the computer, so a little different from my phone history, where more of my more recent discoveries hide…

So I have a few tools in my belt – an analytical mind, a desire to fully hear and understand music on many levels and a broad and ever-growing musical point of reference. Pair this with my beloved headphones for my ability to really focus on my dear, sweet albums and I’m ready to dig in.

So, how do you do it?

To begin, I listen. A lot.

First, I look for the album! r/progmetal has a Google spreadsheet with new releases I browse, and the forum itself has a constant stream of suggested songs from so. many. artists. I also enjoy talking about my favorite older albums, so that’s always an option too. Typically I’ll listen to at least a song first, because I won’t write a review for a band that isn’t “my thing”. But anything that doesn’t make me personally go, “eeww” is up for grabs. Sometimes it takes a full album for a band’s sound to grow on you. I once thought I hated metal (Hahahahahahahahahahaha).

Next, I schedule some time to listen! A quiet period where I know I can focus without being interrupted, which for me is when my daughter is sleeping or between classes while she’s at daycare. The first listen-through I just listen. No note-taking, no deep-instrument tracking except what comes naturally, just letting the music really wash over me. I use my headphones (obviously), sit on the couch or lay in the bed, and usually close my eyes or maybe crochet since that no longer requires attention for me. The point is to be attentive yet relaxed.

If the first play is even mildly interesting and I have the time, I’ll listen again right away. The second listen I’ll often notice things I didn’t the first time, especially if there is singing as I find it grabs my attention. Again, I don’t do notes or anything else, but let myself pick out more details.

Next, I’ll do a listen-through with notes taken, and this time I’ll repeat a song or portion of to really start figuring out the bones, what makes me feel whatever I feel while listening. This might include paying attention to what instruments are present, what effects are used, how the tempo and rhythm do different things to play with emotions, how the singer enunciates or holds words and notes for effect.

Next, I’ll do listens of albums or bands I thought of while listening to the album in question – do they really sound similar, and how so? I’ll also double-check the band’s own influences, if listed, as well as album info like specific genre classification, number of members and their instruments.

And then I’ll do at least one more session with the album to see if my research changed my perceptions and to verify what I think/feel. I’ll start feeding information into my form once I’m done here.

A form..?

For the official write-up, I wanted something that would help me get a well-organized and consistent overview of any music I review. And since I tend to be a little wordy… well, a long-answer form helps me do that without letting each review become a novel. Because otherwise they would. So I’m in the process of fine-tuning it to ensure I hit all the major points I consider when discussing music.

In my mind, the meat of an album review should talk about how the music impacted you, as a whole as well as specific songs, and WHY. These are both really subjective and may change a bit from album to album, but if you don’t ever give your opinion or reasoning, it’s not a review. My questions right now are:

  • How did you hear of this band/album, personal connection or story..?
  • About the artist: who are they, what kind of music do they generally do?
  • About the album: overall style, 1st impression? Similar bands or sounds?
  • Deep Dive: individual song impressions, emotional overtones and super cool/bad bits?
  • Impressive bits, disappointing bits? Anything extremely well done, genre-defying, or needing work?
  • Additional notes/warnings? 

Definitely a work in progress as they’re too general, but a good start. Having a system is more important than the questions, perhaps, because it gives structure and really forces you to examine more deeply than “liked, kthx”.

So that’s how I review music. And from there, I hope to put it into the world and inspire discussion. The only thing better than the listen is the discussion, IMO. Feel free to let me know your own thoughts!

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