How To Write About Music: A Definitive Method

For some music students and journalists, writing about music is a murky matter of abstraction: feeling around in the dark until stumbling upon a potentially valid thesis statement. Maybe it comes after an hour. Maybe the writer is left with a mess. It doesn’t come down to a God-given talent for writing and understanding music. There is one — of very many, I’m sure — concrete way to do it, that anyone can do with practice and attention to detail. This is the miracle solution paranoid artists say can’t exist in art: the Music Map.

This is a technique I learned in music school, from one or maybe two teachers (specifically, the awesome Brian Robison) who taught a class on musical analysis. It can work on any piece of music in any style: I’ve used it to talk about “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra, a sociological analysis of People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm by A Tribe Called Quest, and a Ghanian folk song I had absolutely no background on, including any lyrical translation. The Music Map lets you dissect and diagram every part of a song and assign meaning to it. Then, when you can identify a core or even an interesting group of thoughts, it gives you a chart of exactly how to write about it.

There are three steps that increase in intensity as you go. Do them in order, and remember not to form any big ideas until the end, when you understand every minutia of the piece of work you would like to discuss.

1. Find the audible details.

2. Assign meaning.

3. Construct a holistic understanding.

For a demonstration, I’ll use the song “It’s Called: Freefall” by Rainbow Kitten Surprise. It’s the namesake of the group’s excellent 2018 album, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall. I think it’s safe to say (if it ever really is) that it was my favorite song of the year. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments, or if you listen to the song, let me know what other perspectives you have that I didn’t mention. Please remember that I am just sharing a technique that was taught to me, and many, many others. I did not develop any of these ideas, but I have used them over and over — and likely changed the practice incrementally in the process — and I’ll try to explain what works for me.

1. Finding the audible details

The first step should be completely objective. This is an information gathering stage. Grab a piece of paper, and listen to the work at least twice if you know it well already, and many more times than that if you don’t. Make a list of everything you hear. Really, everything. The first listen makes a frame, and every subsequent listen fills in gaps.

No matter how long the work is or how many pieces it contains, try to record as much detail as time allows. You can always choose to leave things out later.

This step creates a complete, unbiased catalog of elements to piece together later. The resulting list should be contain the names of instruments, description of sounds, arranging decisions, and production techniques. You might be wrong about exactly what you’re hearing, but there’s nothing you can do except practice, so just try your best.

I would also recommend taking a look at the lyrics, always, but especially in a song with this amount of wordplay.

Example: “It’s Called: Freefall” by Rainbow Kitten Surprise

Very low, clear bass
Bass harmonics
Subtle kick — driving, almost clubby rhythm
Voices over emptiness
Call-and-response between bass and harmonics, bass and guitar
Call-and-response between lead voice and harmonies
Adding vocal harmonies one at a time
Gentle cymbals
More of a clear lead vocal after intro verse
Sliding harmonies
Spacey texture
Sense of humor in lyrics
Very serious lyrics about hell and the devil
Theme of giving up as a relief
Internal rhyming
Counterpoint harmonies
Instrumental breakdown
Heavy distortion
Non-melodic lines
Last tone sliding down

2. Assigning meaning

Now that we’ve essentially written down the entire song, we know what everything is. It’s time to determine what everything creates as an effect. This step is a lot more subjective, so it’s important to remember: the goal is to represent what we think the song achieves, rather than guess what the artist wanted to achieve. Tom Petty wrote a beautiful, wistful song in “Free Fallin’,” but he struck gold while trying to get a giggle out of Jeff Lynne. You would be wrong if you said he meant to create a very purposeful chord structure, but you can go ahead and talk about how you think the chord structure is what makes it all so lovely, especially if you use examples from the music to back it up. Because that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Make a second list next to your first, so you’re looking at a T-chart. Next to every item on your objective list, write the effect you think it creates — not how it creates it. We’ll do that later. For example, maybe a “dissonant groan” on the left side creates a “feeling of dread” on the right side.

I also include cultural context here. I can’t say that the artist meant to follow the threads I notice. (This is how artists get pigeonholed into genres, although in my controversial opinion, genre is a very useful pigeonhole for everyone other than that artist.) But I know those threads are relevant on a cultural level. I am a little inconsistent about phrasing these as effects, but they are; it is an effect that I am reminded of church music.

Write down every idea you feel you can justify. Don’t worry about having a one-to-one ratio of objective and subjective elements. You should, however, have an effect or explanation for everything on your list. It still doesn’t matter which pairs are relevant to your central argument (because it doesn’t exist yet!) but it does matter that they make sense.

Some of those things can reference an artist’s habits or decisions. Noticing what an artist says or commonly does is not the same thing as guessing their intentions. You can dig through their personal history — especially if you feel stuck — looking for quotes from interviews and live performances. Maybe I’d like to write about how I love Tom Petty because he is so silly, but accesses such raw feelings. The chords in “Free Fallin'” and how he came to them are both important elements on that chart.

Note: I didn’t censor myself when I was making this table, so it could reflect a normal, imperfect part of the exercise. There is one thing I took out later: the history of Black influence on call-and-response in early American church music, which is basically the foundation of this song. I do think RKS appropriates more than groups, in more than this way. It’s not something I want to tackle in this quick analysis, and there are some things that are just too ubiquitous to try and build out every time. Not every analysis can address every influence, lest we constantly arrive at Pythagoras tuning strings.

Example: “It’s Called: Freefall” by Rainbow Kitten Surprise

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3. Constructing a holistic understanding

Using the finished table, it’s time to move everything onto a Music Map. This is basically a detective’s board with yarn and pushpins. It will be a visual representation not just of the song, but its core value and significance.

The map will have items from both sides of the chart in bubbles, and those bubbles will be organized around each other in a way that shows strong relationships between items. Those bubbles will then be connected with directional arrows.

If you have the space, it’s useful to write each item on a Post-It Note or a small piece of paper, so you can arrange and rearrange them freely. It’s much easier than drawing several copies of a map you must organize in your head. Wherever you decide to write them, convert all the left-side items (auditory elements) from your table into nouns, and draw circles around them. Convert all the right-side items (effects and explanations) into their most concise versions (themes and ideas), and if you see the same one multiple times, only write it once. Draw square bubbles around those items.

Now you can arrange all your bubbles so, usually, your auditory elements are supporting and feeding into your themes and ideas. It helps if you can create a vertical axis, so those supporting elements are physically supporting the rest. Think of it like building a pyramid. The higher up those elements go, the more central they are to your main theme.

Once things are in place, make sure every bubble is connected to something else with an arrow, which you will label with a verb. Reading the way bubbles are connected should form a coherent sentence.

Here’s an example: The (piano arpeggios) —maintain—> [a steady, metronomic rhythm].

My pyramid is sideways. I should have rotated it 90 degrees left. Instead of reading bottom to top, it reads in towards the center, and then right to left. This map turned out very complicated, but I made larger circles to highlight the most important ideas. I also didn’t label all of my arrows, because it’s starting to look very crowded. It’s still good practice to cover every one. Sometimes writing the verbs helps you realize certain things are connected, even though you originally didn’t put them close to each other.

According to my map, here is my thesis:

“It’s Called: Freefall” engages religious imagery and a more contemporary (pop) identity in juxtaposition, creating a moment of “freefall” between the two.

Untitled Diagram

I can clearly see sections of my thought process. I could use groups (like everything connected to “Heretic symbols] to form paragraphs. I could even use the map as a checklist of things I wanted to talk about in a smart, relevant order.

Making Music Maps has often showed me how I should think about something I just can’t get a firm hold of. Sometimes, they tell me what I always knew. In this case, I knew that I loved the religious aspect of this song, and the twist on it. Now I can say what the twist is, and why it’s important to me.

The twist is juxtaposing belief with disbelief; the promise of relief with the sense of bastardization and failure; the strangely alluring idea of sincere advice coming from the Devil himself; and the pervasiveness of historical values in a generation that tries to devalue them along with all other concerns for their wellbeing, whether prudish and old-fashioned or perceptive and wise.

Speaking of advice from the Devil: if you think this is an interesting system, a great way to practice is to listen to something you’ve never heard before. Consider trying a song you could never make up your mind about. I’ve never liked a song any less after analyzing it. That’s the first step, really. Don’t scare yourself out of examining the things you love because you’re afraid it’ll ruin them. There was something in there that struck a chord with you, and it can’t hurt to learn what it is.

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