• Charles

Active listening

If you are looking for a practical use for your spare time that will benefit your work as a musician, I would recommend writing a review of an album. You don’t have to publish the piece anywhere, but to think critically and analytically about someone else’s music is to consider the objective merits of it as an example of a piece of art, and the subjective view of how well it meets the artist’s intentions. When you review something, you are asking, what is it they are actually trying to achieve?


Nobody composes music simply for the sake of it, because they’re bored and it’s a wet Wednesday evening. They do it because they have something to say, or an ambition to fulfil, or a situation to understand. Reviewing an album isn’t like reviewing a restaurant or a sofa or a guitar because your enjoyment of the music is secondary to whether it is any good or not. If you were horrified by the assault on your ears, temperament and perceived sagacity, the least you can do is to recover your lost time and identify what it is about the music that doesn’t work. In other words: if you were put in charge of the composition, arrangement or production, what would you change?


The most frustrating reviews I have done are of music that could have been better if the artist had actually spent more time treating it as an art form, rather than as a pastime. This may seem like a facile and pretentious thing to say but it really doesn’t take much effort to want to understand the basics of how songwriting actually works. If you spend the time learning to play a guitar, it is only another few hours’ experimentation inferring from some basic chords the musical metaphor and linguistic expression that turn an idea into a song. It is possible to write a song — even using only three or four chords — that has almost visible strings woven between story and sound. Then again, it is also possible to create a similar composition which gives the impression that the songwriter learnt four chords, and then felt that any more information would be a dangerous abuse of valuable brain capacity.


Something else I like to consider is this: if the song were sung in a different language, would you still listen to it? Or would you ever perform your own works instrumentally? It’s remarkable how many well-known songs are devastatingly dismal in musical content, and the emotion is suspended entirely by thin strands of lyrical lines. In some cases, the breathtaking craftsmanship of lyric-writing more than makes up for musical vapidity, and the vocal performance gives it solidity and conviction. In most songs that make it to Radio 1 — and the little-known singer-songwriters around the world who imitate them — the lyrics are bizarre, nonsensical, and weighed down with heavy and gravid mixed metaphors either delivered airily and carelessly or else bellowed out in a manner that, in the context of the sentiment, could most kindly be described as “irrelevant”.


One could argue that the lyrics are in fact the whole point, and the music and singing voice is merely a vector for your poem, but to deflate the significance of the musical components like that is idiotic. If you are doing it that way, you would find a more impressive vehicle than such a non-event as a pattern of closely related diatonic chords. You would find rhythms that felt crunchy and fragmented, like walking down a steep path of loose gravel, or vocals as smooth as a cashmere scarf slipping off a varnished table, or a spooky delivery that holds an apprehensive emotional state, like an old door creakily pushing open. This is why rap music is brilliant. It’s why Billie Eilish is brilliant, too. And it’s why most singer-songwriters and productions that make it to Radio 1, even some through BBC Introducing, are not. Any track that holds something weird and unconventional, even if it’s merely the occasional tickle of an idea, is going to have a longer half-life in any local music scene than if you are just another member of your species with a voice and an instrument.


The same goes for the production. Many small studios are well-equipped but somewhat lacking in expertise, so although each instrument sounds more polished than the artist could produce on their own, it doesn’t have that high-refractive-index gleam and coruscance of someone who understands exactly how to balance the frequencies of the overall sound. This requires some work on the artist’s part to learn about what kind of digital manipulation their musical components need. However, I would say, hang the expense and work on your own, clean and live-sounding capture: there is nothing better than an honest live performance, because that kind of charisma, chemistry and charm absolutely cannot be faked, even if the music ends up a little wonky.


The studio sound is hard to get right without years of work, but some well-chosen microphones placed with discernment and care can produce the most engaging recorded performances with a few weeks’ diligent practise. Get rid of the roomy sound by simply finding the best locations for microphones and baffles. Calculate how long sound will take to travel between microphones placed a few feet apart, because your ear will be able to detect inconsistencies in the delay, and you will have the most immense stereo effect. Play with the equaliser and the compressors. Learn about gain and recording levels for purposes of pristine clarity and dynamics rather than just for volume.


Your music is not unique because you’ve written it; it’s unique because the entire story that got you to the point of creating the work is unique, in much the same way that the ideas I express in this blog are hardly original, but I write about them because I have opinions which are founded in experience and extensive consideration of the ideas. The whole blog is packaged in a style and a language which I enjoy reading myself, rather than in the straightforward, neat and businesslike stack of unambiguous sentences favoured by many bloggers and journalists. In much the same way that you wouldn't advocate prolixity for prolixity's sake, why would you communicate any point in as few words as possible when you can sizzle with delight at exploring a musical idea synesthetically? And why would you write a four-chord song when you can shuffle up semitones and seamlessly leap across almost impossible gaps in the tonality, using harmony like quantum tunnelling?


Songwriters have to follow through with all their background, not just by playing chords because they sound good, but creating combinations of notes and sounds and textures and frequencies that absolutely capture the essence of that story. In reviewing a piece of music, asking what the artist was trying to achieve, you give yourself the opportunity to make inferences about another artist’s intentions. These may be completely wrong, of course. But in doing so, you’ll discover something about your own work that you didn’t realise you knew.

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