Learning Songwriting Craft By Critiquing Others

Critiquing other people’s music help you make sense of the songwriting process.


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Writing a song reviewIt’s a well-known fact in education that we retain more information about a subject if we teach it. Teaching others requires us to organize our thoughts and develop procedures that can “get the job done.” It’s why one of the solutions I recommend for solving songwriter’s block is to teach others how to write.

If you’re suffering from songwriter’s block, here’s another way to come up with a solution: critiquing recordings. And it works for the same reason that teaching works: it requires you to organize your thoughts and think about exactly why you like or dislike something.

If you’ve been struggling with songwriter’s block, take a few days’ break from writing, and turn your attention to being a music critic. Music criticism is not simply saying why you dislike something for argument’s sake. It’s more specific. Critiquing means:

  1. Analyzing a specific song, trying to discern how it is assembled, and also trying to determine why the songwriter made the compositional choices they made.
  2. Trying to determine how the song adheres to, or strays from, conventional norms in its genre.
  3. Suggesting how the song could have been improved, if applicable.

None of those three steps allow for grumpy, unsupported “this song sucks” kind of arguments. Music criticism is meant to help the reader understand the song on a deeper level. It’s not specifically an opportunity for you to simply give your opinions, even though being opinionated is part of the process. Good musical criticism is not arrogant as much as it is fodder for discussion.

As a songwriter, you’ll benefit immensely from learning how to properly analyze and critique other people’s music. So choose a song to critique, and let’s get started. Here’s a step-by-step process to follow:

  1. Learn how to properly analyze songs. I’ve written an article in the past about this which you should read.
  2. Imagine that you’ve been hired by a magazine to write a review of a new hit song. In other words, avoid the process of musical critiquing that requires you to simply offer your feelings or opinion. You need to do more, and imagining that you’re a professional reviewer will help you achieve the right mindset.
  3. Make a list of aspects of the song you think work well, and then a list of what you think could have been done better.
  4. Write a review/critique that consists of 3 parts:
    1. An introduction that gives the general impression of the song, and its overall effect. (Did you like/dislike the song? Is there an overriding impression that hits you as soon as you hear it? Anything you say at this stage will need to be supported with “evidence”, so any strong opinions will eventually need to be reinforced by your understanding of good song structure.)
    2. A central part that describes, using intelligent vocabulary, why good sections are good, and bad sections are bad. (How does the song adhere to or stray from conventional songwriting norms?)
    3. A final part that reiterates the song’s lasting impression, plus any advice for the reader. (Is the song worth listening to? Are there other songs/songwriters you’d recommend the reader acquaint themselves with?)

 As you likely know, there are lots of online sites that allow for reviews of songs and albums, and so you can practice and improve your reviewing abilities by posting to those sites. Amazon, iTunes, CDBaby, eMusic, and others, allow you to post reviews.

Whenever you post something, always do it with as much respect as possible. You can be highly opinionated without being rude.

The benefit to learning how to critique others is that your own songwriting technique will coalesce and strengthen. If you’re using review-writing to defeat writer’s block, you’ll find that the process of digging into someone else’s music and learning why it sounds the way it does will get you excited for writing again.

It especially works well if you always try to find the positive in what others are doing. That doesn’t mean you’ll always find it, but the positive frame of mind will get you inspired to get back to creating good music.

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