Is music writing still relevant?

Dom Aversano

I recently listened to a podcast series by Sean Adams from Drowned in Sound which discusses the decline of music journalism as a profession (not to be conflated with music writing as a whole). It caused me to reflect on why I consider music writing valuable and important, even in an age where anyone can easily publish their thoughts. Why do the stories of music matter, and what would happen if they dissolved into digital chatter?

There’s a quote that is often wheeled to demonstrate the apparent futility of writing about music — one I found objectionable long before I ever considered music writing.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

This is attributed to all sorts of people: Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, and Elvis Costello. Probably none of them said it, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. Get a group of musicians together and they will talk about music for hours — so if talking is permitted, why is writing not? Both articulate thought, and as an experienced writer once told me, writing is just thinking clearly.

History is full of composers who wrote. Aaron Copland was a prolific writer, as was Arnold Schoenberg. Before them you had 19th-century composers writing essays on music in a similar way to how 21st-century musicians use social media. Some infamously, such as the master of self-promotion Richard Wagner, who filled an entire book with anti-Semitic bile.

There is no lack of writing in contemporary music culture either. Composers such as John Adams, Philip Glass, Errollyn Wallen and Gavin Bryars have all written autobiographies. Steve Reich recently published Conversations, a book that transcribes his conversations with various collaborators. In South India, the virtuoso singer and political activist T M Krishna is a prolific writer of books and articles on musicology and politics.

Given that music writing has a long and important history, the question that remains is: does it have contemporary relevance, or could the same insights be crowdsourced from the vast amount of information online? In short, do professional opinions on music still matter?

Unsurprisingly, I believe yes.

I do not believe that professional opinion should be reserved only for science, politics, and economics, but should apply to music and the arts too, and if we are truly no longer willing to fund artistic writing, what does this say about ourselves and our culture? Is music not a serious part of human existence?

Even if musicians at times feel antagonised by professional critics, they ultimately benefit from having experts document and analyse their art. This is not to suggest professionals cannot get it wrong; they most certainly can, as exemplified by this famous example where jazz criticism went seriously awry.

In the Nov. 23, 1961, DownBeat, Tynan wrote, “At Hollywood’s Renaissance Club recently, I listened to a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend exemplified by these foremost proponents [Coltrane and Dolphy] of what is termed avant-garde music.

“I heard a good rhythm section… go to waste behind the nihilistic exercises of the two horns.… Coltrane and Dolphy seem intent on deliberately destroying [swing].… They seem bent on pursuing an anarchistic course in their music that can but be termed anti-jazz.”

Despite this commentary being way off the mark, it also acts as a historical record for how far ahead of the critics John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy were. Had the critics not documented their opinion, we would not know how this music — which sounds relatively tame by today’s standards — was initially received by some as ‘nihilistic’ and ‘anarchistic’. It is easy to point out the failure of the critics, but it also highlights how advanced Coltrane and Dolphy were.

Conversely, an example where music writing resonated with the Zeitgeist was Alex Ross’s book The Rest is Noise. This concise, entertaining history of 20th-century classical music was so influential it formed the curation for a year-long festival of music in London’s Southbank Centre. The event changed the artistic landscape of the city by making contemporary classical music accessible and intelligible while demonstrating it could sell out big concert halls. In essence, Ross did what composers had largely failed to do in the 20th century — he brought the public up-to-date and provided a coherent narrative for a century that felt confusing to many.

The peril of leaving this to social media was demonstrated by this year’s biggest-grossing film, Barbie. For the London press preview, social media influencers were given preference over film critics and told, ‘Feel free to share your positive feelings about the film on Twitter after the screening.’ I expected to find the film challenging and provocative but encountered something that felt bland, obvious, and devoid of nuance. I potentially got caught up in a wave of hype that used unskilled influencers and sidelined professional critics.

The world is undoubtedly changing at a rapid pace, and music writing must keep up with it. Some of what has disappeared, I do not miss, such as the ‘build them up to tear them down’ attitude of certain music journalism during the print era. Neither do I miss journalists being the gatekeepers of culture. For all the Internet’s faults, the fact that anyone can publish their work online and develop an audience without the need for an intermediary remains a marvel of the modern era.

However, as with all revolutions, there is a danger of being overzealous about the new at the expense of the old. Music is often referred to metaphorically as an ecosystem, yet given that we are a part of nature, surely it is an accurate description. Rip out large chunks of that ecosystem and the consequences may be that everything within it suffers.

For this reason, far from believing that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, I consider it a valuable way to make sense of and celebrate a beautiful art form. If that writing disappears, we will all be poorer for it.

So in the spirit of supporting contemporary music writers here is a non-exhaustive list of some writers whom I have benefitted from reading.

Alex Ross / The New Yorker

An authority on contemporary classical music and authour of The Rest is Noise. 

Philip Sherborne / Pitchfork & Substack

Experienced journalist specialising in experimental electronic music. 

Dr Leah Broad / Substack

A classical musical expert who analyses music through a feminist perspective. The authour of Quartet. 

Ted Gioia / Substack

Outspoken takes on popular culture and music from an ex-jazz pianist.  Authour of multiple books. 

Kate Molleson / BBC Radio

Scottish classical music critique who writes about subjects such as the Ethiopian nun/pianist/composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.

T M Krishna / Various

One of the finest Carnatic music singers of his generation, a mountain climber, and a polemical left-wing voice in Indian culture.