Meme of the Day: It’s All About the Music, Man…

Or is it?

“I’m interested in how [music] makes me feel. If it was an early Who single, I’m interested in how that made me feel, and I a lot of other kids feel, or what about a Motown record made a lot of us dance at a particular time. But I’m more interested in how it does that musically, I think. That’s the underlying core at it. The way that the backbeat and bass line works, rather than something else. That’s how I listen to music. I listen to the notes.”
Richard Williams, 2002

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“Little rock criticism is concerned with music, because most rock critics are less concerned with sound than sociology. This can have depressing consequences. For instance, Springsteen’s success is defined in terms of his critical cult, ‘punk’ imagery, or his dramatic stage show. Hardly anyone has discussed his inventive use of song structure (multiple bridges, for example), his extraordinary guitar effects, or the simple power of his voice.”
– Dave Marsh, 1976 ( Rolling Stone, “The Critic’s Critic”)

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“I think something else that I did which not many people, male or female, have the technical expertise as both musicians and writers to do was to really try to get inside and explain the process of making rock music and records — which is what I still call them even if now they’re really CDs or files or whatever. You know what I mean? Most rock writers are people with literary aspirations who appreciate music but really don’t understand how to do it — or else they probably would. There are people who write for guitar mags who may have some more knowledge about how to tap like Eddie Van Halen but they have even less elegance or imagination when it comes to the English language. Of course, there are just as many great rock musicians who can’t really articulate what it is that they do.”
Deborah Frost, 2002

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“It would be better if he or she knew enough about performance practices to be able to identify specific techniques, and better still if the reviewer could follow a theme and variations, recognize basic forms of counterpoint, and identify common harmonies. Not because that sort of information belongs in every review. Rather, if the reviewer understands on a structural level what’s going on in the music, it will be that much easier for him or her to explain his or her observations to the reader — provided, of course, that he or she writes well enough to make those ideas comprehensible.”
J.D.  Considine, 2000 

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“Periodically, I get to feeling guilty because I am a music critic — I hate the term, but I suppose it applies — who knows nothing about music. I have listened to a lot of rock and jazz, of course, and I do know a good deal about the development of American music. But I can’t read music. After several patient lessons, I am hard-pressed to detect even the simplest chord changes. I never count time. And I don’t know the first thing about harmony. (Actually, I do know the first thing — it has to do with sound waves. I don’t know the second thing.) Furthermore, I know that stuff means something to musicians, even rock musicians. Worse still, some listeners care about it too.”
Robert Christgau, 1969 

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“For the record, I think an understanding of the basics of music theory and notation as well as an overview of Western classical history will help any pop writer. This information gives you another way to talk about tunes and performers — a significant way, but simply one among many.”
Milo Miles, 2001

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“Most people enjoy music and have opinions on what works and what doesn’t without having any music education (just as people can enjoy novels and poetry without having studied literature). It may be useful to have some understanding of how things work technically but so far there’s no evidence that music education makes for better rock criticism — the reverse, if anything.”
Simon Frith, 2002

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“I don’t think critics should stay away from anything. A critic should learn as much about music as possible, from any angle that seems interesting: music theory, history, psychology, literature, theater, acoustics, religion, dance, anthropology, film theory, pharmacology, economics, fashion, linguistics, electronics, sports, and all the other things that touch on music. Playing an instrument and being in a band help you appreciate what musicians have to learn, how groups make decisions and how songs feel from the inside. It’s one way, though not the only way, to understand how music works.”
Jon Pareles, 2001

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“To evaluate rock music as music the peripherals need to be set aside. The look of a band — where they’re coming from — is musically irrelevant. The difference between good heavy metal and bad heavy metal can only be determined just as you would determine the difference between good and bad funk or country — by focusing on the music played. Bad clothes or hair is irrelevant. Even bad lyrics and hackneyed melodies though worth discussing may not tell the listener anything about the band’s ability as rock musicians.”
– Joe Carducci, 1990 (Rock and the Pop Narcotic)

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“So, contrary to the letter-writers who righteously and semi-regularly demand that Musician drop the biographical trivia and concentrate on the music, I say it cannot be done. You might as well demand that Sophocles cut the Oedipus anecdotes and concentrate on incest. Or that Shakespeare cut the Hamlet crap and get to the point about ruling class decadence. Or that Tolstoy deal with the issues of war and peace, not the personalities.”
– Charles M. Young, 1991 (Musician, “Why We Write About What We Write About” Aug. 1991)

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4 thoughts on “Meme of the Day: It’s All About the Music, Man…

  1. Great batch of quotes, perfect concluding graphic (since as I was reading, all I could think of was “here’s three chords, go form a band” as it might apply to criticism).

    Once, when teaching a course on the 1970s, I wanted to show my students the difference between funk and disco. I didn’t have the theoretical chops to explain it … it wasn’t about being able to play music, I could poke out examples of each style on a bass guitar, for instance … it was about putting the difference into words. So I played two songs. The first was a typical disco song, don’t recall which one, and as it played, I pounded the beat out on the podium and talked a bit about why BPM mattered to DJs playing to an audience on the dance floor, why consistency was important. Then I played “The Big Payback” by James Brown, and when the guitar riff started up, I hit the podium along with the beat, as best I could, and told the students that the difference between those two kinds of beats was the difference between disco and funk.

    Musically speaking. It was an American Studies class, not a Music Theory class, and I spent more time talking about disco subcultures than I did with how funky JB could be. Which, I suppose, means in the end I don’t think we need to know music theory to write about music. But it wouldn’t hurt, either.

  2. The best thing about music and music education are the people you meet through it. Making music is like having a great conversation amongst friends and for me, teaching is equally as enthralling. I’m pretty sure philosopher Christopher Small had it right in saying that music is a verb, it’s something we do and it’s valid at every level.

  3. It’s been nice (enjoyable, stimulating) to see Steven Ward’s interviews: I appreciate J.D. Considine’s independent, open perspective; and perceive that Jon Pareles has a more expansive perspective than I supposed.

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