By Dillon Riley
Music criticism is undoubtedly a key function within the music industry. It is the critic’s job to set the pace for what is good, cool, and ultimately relevant music-wise within the pop culture sphere. As a rule then, it seems imperative for music critics to maintain a keen sense for what makes music, well, good, cool, and relevant. Most critics thankfully assess a variety of elements, both musical and otherwise, in their reviews when moving towards those sorts of conclusions. In fact, most contemporary music criticism has very little, if any, concrete instrumental analysis, at least in a theoretical sense.
This makes for something of a polarizing debate. Some feel anyone writing about music in a professional capacity should be sufficiently well-versed in music theory to analyze the complexities of composition, while others are drawn to reviews that put a premium on deeper personal connection to the work over what they see as rigid analysis of its parts. At the core of this debate is a simple question:
Do music critics need to know how read music?
Naturally, the answer is a bit more nuanced. From a critic’s standpoint, it’s all a matter of knowing your audience. Readers should (rightfully) expect competent and robust music theory analysis from certain publications, and more personal, empathetic work from others. For instance, magazines that stress the importance of performance, say your Guitar Player Monthlys and Jazz Monthlys, can be relied upon to feature writers who are indeed capable music readers. In a sense, it comes with the job since their chosen aesthetic as a publication skews towards readers who expect that style of criticism.
On the other hand, one should not necessarily expect that sort of work from bloggier sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum, who appeal to a more general audience — i.e. non-musicians — and act more as tastemakers than theoretical critics. Both types of music writing suit the needs of their given audiences and maintain their expected levels of cultural relevance. For most people — even musicians — that is enough.
However, some still take issue with the notion of contextually-based music criticism and make it up to be bad for the industry as a whole. In a March of 2014 Daily Beast article titled “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting” writer Ted Gioia spoke of the issues he took with the current direction of contemporary music criticism, citing among many points, the way all critics supposedly now put artists’ aesthetics ahead of music analysis in their reviews. While his points do make some sense, Gioia’s assumption that all criticism lacks a basis in theory rings false. Naturally, the number of non-musicians who read music criticism far outweighs those who do, so of course “lifestyle reporting,” as he claimed it to be, appeals to a larger audience. Still, that doesn’t mean the critical work he grew up on is gone, it’s just become more of a niche medium. No wonder his piece received such a loud response.
Without argument it is valuable for music journalists to have an understanding of theory. But do all music journalists need to be able to read music to promote great musicians? Absolutely not. Good journalists should and can be able to analyze artists’ work and promote noteworthy performers without any ability to recreate the work themselves. The one thing they must have to further the industry is a passion for music. And from that perspective, learning as much we can about the field we love will always make us better journalists. And musicians.
In any case, being able to read music is essential for anyone who wants to step away from the laptop and actually make music on their own. Soundfly offers an excellent online course in the fine art of reading music, and you can sign up for it right over here.
Dillon Riley is an aspiring music journalist and music industry professional currently living in Boston, MA. A graduate of Boston’s Emerson College and Berklee College of Music, Dillon’s extensive study of music and journalism have given him a unique perspective on the intersections of the two mediums. Talk to him on Twitter about shoegaze if you like.