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 one stumbles on a potentially valid thesis statement. An hour into writing, that thesis reveals itself as just one level of the real point. People are afraid to engage in academics around artistic pursuits because of that vapor idea haze that seems impossible to distill without a God-given talent for writing and understanding music. There is one, 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 body of music in any style: I’ve used it to talk about “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra, the sociological importance of A Tribe Called Quest (using the album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm as an example), and a Ghanian folk song I had absolutely no background on, including a lyrical translation. The Music Map lets you dissect and diagram every part of a song and assign meaning to it. Then, when you’ve fully formed your understanding of the core essence you want to talk about, it gives you a chart of exactly how to write about it.

There are three steps that increase in intensity as you go. You must do them in order, and you must 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. Finding the audible details

2. Assigning meaning

3. Constructing a holistic understanding

For a demonstration, I’ll use the song “It’s Called: Freefall” by Rainbow Kitten Surprise. It’s partially the namesake the group’s excellent 2018 album, How To: Friend, Love, Freefall. I think it’s safe to say (but is it ever?) it was my favorite song of the year. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments, or if you listen, 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 I’ll try to explain what works. I would also recommend taking a look at the lyrics, always, but especially in a song with this amount of wordplay.

1. Finding the audible details

The first step is incredibly simple and should be completely objective. Attention to detail is most important here, and you should listen to the song at least twice, if you know it well already. Many more times than that if you don’t. This can scale to be used for a larger body of work without changing anything. It’s just a lot more listening and you’ll have to try to include everything that might be important. You can always choose to leave things out later.

Make a list of everything you hear. Really, everything. We’re trying to create a complete, unbiased catalog of elements to piece together later. We don’t want to give ourselves the wrong idea of the song too early on. This list should be filled with a lot of nouns, a lot of objective adjectives. You might be wrong about exactly what you’re hearing (production techniques, unusual instrumentation, but there’s nothing you can do except practice, so just try your best).

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 can start to think about why each element exists. The first step was just gathering info. The second step is where the analysis starts. You have to be more discerning, now, but don’t start cutting out valid ideas. Being accurate is important, but don’t confuse accuracy and relevance. It still doesn’t matter which explanations are relevant to your central argument (because it doesn’t exist yet!) but it does matter if they’re true. This is the subjective side.

Make a second list next to your first, so you’re looking at a chart format. For every entry on your objective list, write what you think its function is. 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 explanation for everything on your list. If you don’t know, the minimum you should do is write down its connection to another element on the objective side. (For example: Even if I don’t know why a song uses horns, I can tell how they interact with vocals, the rhythm section, etc.) Try to remember the artist’s personal history, and if you’re stuck on something, you can always look for quotes from interviews and live performances.

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 African influence in this style of music. I would want to do more research to confirm the thoughts off the top of my head before publishing them. That being said, that history is something to consider in all American music, and I think it’s a conversation much more relevant to this band’s overall style than it is to this specific song. It is so prevalent in the American identity, especially in styles like this, from the South, that we can usually assume it’s just a natural inclusion in whatever genre is in question. I do think this band uses a denser appropriation of black music than most in its arena, but if I were to start a conversation about that, I would pull in much more relevant songs from their catalog.

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 create a visual Music Map. More experienced writers writing shorter analyses could stop before this step and use more of a mental map, but this is where everything comes together, and it’s often very nuanced, including multiple levels of understanding. 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 columns 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 (themes and ideas) into their most concise versions, 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, and the higher up those elements go, the more central they are to your main theme. Think of it like building a pyramid. Once things are in place, make sure every bubble is connected 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].

The way I organized my chart, I should have rotated it 90 degrees left. It takes a minute to figure out, but I think it gets the point across the way it is. This map turned out very complicated, but I circled the main elements (in the middle of the chart, and to their right) to highlight the central idea. I also didn’t label all of my arrows, because it’s starting to look very crowded. But it’s 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:

The central idea of “It’s Called: Freefall” is to engage religious imagery and a pop identity in juxtaposition, and create a moment of “freefall” in between them.

Untitled Diagram

I’ve made neater, simpler maps. But I can still clearly see sections of my thought process, which I could use to form paragraphs, or even just 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.

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. Or maybe a song you never could make up your mind about. I’ve never liked a song 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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