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Writing About Music

As someone who writes pages and pages every year about the arts, there is one topic I will not tackle: music. That may sound surprising coming from someone who grew up in a family of musicians, played flute professionally for decades, and attends scores of musical events annually. I can write about musical organizations and musicians, but describing music itself or musical performances is beyond me. So I was delighted to read Jonathan Biss’ recent piece in which this superb young pianist describes the problem: “…the only thing worth doing is also nearly impossible: to convey something of what the emotional experience of listening is like.”

Describing music and musical performance is deceptively difficult. Unlike writing about theatre or art, where the writer can include plot summaries or reproductions of images, music is abstract and elusive. Writers resorting to historical facts about composers rarely give us a sense of the music. Writing that is so technical that the reader needs a companion score and dictionary to decipher it is even worse. Then there is the “oh my, isn’t it wonderful” school, who feel that classical music is beyond emotional or intellectual explication.

But recently I read a piece in the New Yorker by Jeremy Denk, another great pianist. (“Flight of the Concord“; 2/6/12). Here at last is a writer capturing the essence and experience of music. It made me want to go right out and buy his recording of Ives’ Concord Sonata, a piece I have never really warmed to. Now I am a double convert – to Denk and Ives – which is what good writing should be able to do.

Apparently, I was not the only one impressed by Biss and Denk. So was Anne Midgette, a well known music critic who had the good sense to acknowledge how much some performers have to offer in writing about their art form. -Tom

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3 Responses to Writing About Music

  1. Thanks so much for highlighting the Jeremy Denk piece in The New Yorker. I,too, was swept away by it because of the description of the Concord Sonata, its composition and performance, but I was equally fascinated by Denk’s description of the recording/editing process. I shared the article with a friend who makes videos for arts organizations because of this latter aspect. It was an incredible article.

  2. Inga Petri says:

    Thanks for highlighting these articles. It’s also been fun to read “Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin (musician turned neuro-scientist). A whole other description of what goes on.

  3. Ruika Lin says:

    Thank you for the article and links! I recently wrote an article about music for a friend’s blog – instead of describing a certain musical performances, I tried my very best to express the influence of music on people’s lives and how music can be leveraged to make a difference in a wider spectrum of topics such as leadership, trust, changing perspectives, and human connections. Found TED speakers Benjamin Zander and Charles Hazlewood’s talks to be particularly inspiring and helpful to channel for my article! Thought I’d share:


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