Writing a Music Critique

What Is a Critique?

A critique analyzes, interprets, describes, and evaluates an event, answering the questions: “How? Why? How well?” A critique does not have to be entirely negative; it may be positive, negative, or a combination of the two.

The object of this exercise is to listen to music with a discriminating ear. This does not mean that you cannot also enjoy the experience as well. A good critic walks into an event with an open mind, seeking to gain insight through a particular performance. There is also a human side of being a critic. Although your critique will not be read by the performers, you should always keep in mind that there are real people involved who in most cases have put forth their best efforts. Not withstanding, an honest critique can also be a source for valuable, constructive suggestions.

When writing your critique, please include the following:

Introduce the titles of the piece(s), composers, place of performance, date of performance, and performers involved. If it is an operatic, musical, or vocal performance, include the text’s authors as well as a brief description of the plot (if known).

How Do I Write a Critique?

The very nature of music resists attempts to verbalize it—that said, when doing analysis, avoid overly sentimental, “precious” description of musical events, as they just take the place of more serious discussion.

Avoid the “one thing after another” or “listing” approach to writing—that is, always reporting the musical events in the order in which they occur (i.e., the first movement does A, B, and C, and then the second movement does D, E, F, etc.)

You may critique the performers, conductor, organization of the event, and even the audience.

Instead, try and answer the following questions:

  1. What was your overall reaction to the performance?
  2. What was the strongest element of the performance?
  3. What was the weakest element of the performance?
  4. Was the event well-organized? Was there any element of the performance that detracted from your concentration or enhanced it?
  5. If the performance is vocal, how did the text correspond with the music? Did the music communicate the text effectively?
  6. If the performance was purely instrumental, what visual images and/or emotions might have been conveyed by the music? Did the music communicate effectively?
  7. If there was a conductor, did you feel the conductor communicated his or her interpretation of the music to the players and the audience?

In addition, a simple method of describing the actual music itself is SHMRG: Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Growth (texture/formal structure). Even though many of you are not Music majors, you can list one thing about all or a few of these items that caught your attention. Since our minds cannot retain all that our ears hear in most cases, focus on a few key events and hold on to them as the music unfolds.

Some helpful hints:

  1. Listen to the pieces in advance. The Music Library has an enormous collection of recordings, and the Classical Music Library or Naxos database, available on the IUP Libraries website, is also a good resource.
  2. Read the program notes while waiting for the performance to start.
  3. Choose the right seat—usually the back of the floor section or the front portion of the balcony are the best acoustical places to sit.