A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

The New Critic: part 1


Caeli-Smith-Bach-e1473271016398Back in 2009 Musica Viva Australia asked me to take part in a music writing program called So you think you can write. They challenged audience members to write a review, and I had to give the entrants feedback and pick a winner. We structured it around a standard print newspaper format, so 350 words with 24 hours turnaround.

How things have changed! I’m still writing for the Sydney Morning Herald but the physical space – real, dead tree paper, I mean — allocated to classical music reviews has shrunk right down. There is one slot per week, on a Saturday, to cover the gamut of classical music in any given week in Sydney.

It’s not ideal. Light years from ideal. But since the New World Order came in, about twelve months ago, I’ve radically changed my review routine and, in some ways, it’s for the better. I now try and get to two performances a week, sometimes more, sometimes less, and to get something online on this blog within twelve hours. I don’t get paid, and I don’t get the readership of, say, the Sydney Morning Herald, but I do get some delightful responses and, more to the point, I get to listen to some of the great music-making going on in this city and to sit down afterwards, think about what I heard, and put my thoughts into words. I don’t limit myself to 350 words, and the writing can become a little loose, blackboardself-indulgent or tangential. Nevertheless, it’s a work in progress and It’s become an important part of my creative practise as I adapt to the rapidly changing media world.

You’ll see a few less reviews here over the next month, and a few more at the Herald, because my esteemed colleague is having a well-earned break. But in the meantime, I thought I’d re-post the ‘how to review’ guide I wrote for Musica Viva, back in 2009, as a prequel to writing an updated version for the social media age.

So You Think You Can Write: the top 10 tips on writing music reviews

There have been many, many words written about music criticism by lofty figures in literature, and I’ve put some links to ones I find useful at the end of this. But, for what it is worth, here are my top ten tips for writing reviews.


Listen to the music. Really listen. Anyone can let the music waft over them – indeed, it’s one of life’s great joys — but if you are going to write about a performance you need to practise active listening. It takes concentration but the great thing about active listening is that it is so rewarding, both for the audience, and for the performers. You can feel it when an audience is really, really listening, and it can be a terrifically exciting moment. Of course, if the music sends you to sleep, that might also say something about the performance!

Listen to yourself. It’s amazing how many people say, “I couldn’t review: I don’t know anything about music.” And yet, these same people will go to a concert and talk with animation and great insight about how a performance made them feel. A review takes this reaction a step further by asking what it was about that particular performance that produced that particular feeling. It doesn’t have to be scientific; just articulate, considered and your own.

Tell a story A review is not a scorecard, nor yet a blow-by-blow account of what happened. Like any good story, a review will have a beginning, a middle and an end. It might mention every piece, but not necessarily. It might mention the hall, or the program, or the performers. It might even mention the audience. The trick is to use these elements to build a succinct and interesting account of your reaction to the concert.

Beware of adjectives This doesn’t just apply to reviews! Adjectives can be a writer’s best friend, but they can turn into their worst enemy. Piling on the purple prose might make you feel like you are getting closer to the heart of the music, but it slows down the story. There are many ways to describe – through verbs, similes, or even the rhythm of the prose.

Be accurate. If this is too obvious, I apologize, but nothing is more dispiriting to a performer, and nothing more delightful to a picky reader, than spotting a factual error in a review. Check the program (which is usually online), check the spelling of the artists’ names, call the presenter, phone a friend, but don’t publish something – and posting online counts as publishing — if you’re not 100% sure of your facts.


Be mean. Writing a review puts you in an unusual position – you are passing judgement on a performance you could almost certainly not do yourself. It is not about pulling your punches, but do always respect the skill of the artists and the long journey they have taken to get where they are. Most importantly, if their performance disappoints, try to analyse why. It might not necessarily be wrong notes or poor ensemble. What was missing?

Be obscure For the purposes of this exercise, let us assume you are writing for a general audience. Your readers may have been at the concert but it is much more likely they were not. They may follow classical music avidly, or just be interested in the arts. No need to dumb down, but a discussion of the finer points of Sonata Form is for a program note or musicological essay, not a review.

Be trivial ‘Write about the band, not missing your train home,’ says Alex Petridis of The Guardian. He’s spot on. Your evening might be coloured by the terrible traffic on the bridge, but that’s the kind of detail which sits best in a personal diary or facebook page. We want to know about the performance.

Worry. Don’t worry about your musical knowledge or lack thereof. Don’t feel you need research your subject to the n-th degree. If you were there, you listened and you had a reaction, you have the basic ingredients for a review. Now tell the story.

Be late I’m not talking about being late for the concert, although struggling to get your breath back through the first movement or, worse, having to wait outside the door is never fun. I am referring to your deadline. A music critic can be insightful as they like, but if they do not deliver their story on time (and to the correct length), it won’t get published. The So-You-Think-You-Can-Write brief is up to 350 words, 48 hours from the start time of the concert. Good luck.

Further reading:

Every would-be writer – in fact, every writer full stop — should read George Orwell’s rules on writing good English at least once a year.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

From ‘On Politics and Language’ by George Orwell, in its entirety here.

Closer to home, Yvonne Frindley, who writes about music for Sydney Symphony and many others, has much sound advice and reflection on good writing about music in her blog, Thomasina’s Last Waltz. Start here.

Finally, there’s nothing like reading good writing. You will have your own favourites, but Alex Ross (author of The Rest is Noise and critic of the New Yorker) has lists many music critics in the US. Seek inspiration here.

And if you’ve made it this far, one more link: www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary. It’s Sanctuary, my book on Dartington International Summer School, and it’s going to be fab, if it gets off the ground. You see, in keeping with this Brave New World of media and publishing, Sanctuary is being published by Unbound, an amazing bunch of booknuts who have developed a new publishing house model. Take a look. It’s quite cool. And if you’ve found my top ten tips helpful, please return the favour by sharing my project on social media or in real life, and pledging to help make this book reality!


  1. Always struck by Orwell’s rule 3: If it is possible to cut a word cut, always cut it out. He’s not follow his own rule there…

  2. I mean ‘following’, obviously.

  3. Interesting reading, Harriet. As someone who has dabbled in ideas about how to increase classical music’s exposure and impact in the media, one of the principal issues I have with reviews is their short length! I’m always impressed if a reviewer can squeeze any sort of narrative in. God knows how they could be any shorter.
    I think it’s a shame that there isn’t the space to (as you say) discuss sonata form. I wonder if there would be scope to expand the format to a useful length, so that reviews can not only be about a concert, but be about sonata form too. Or any other topic for that matter.
    The Herald art critic, John McDonald, gets a 2 page spread in spectrum. And then there’s Alex Ross’s New Yorker articles. Both of these critics often review multiple concerts/exhibitions in their articles and often manage to make their pieces about broader issues too.
    Longer, broader and deeper articles/reviews are what I’d like to see in our print media.

  4. There was, at one point, a thematic page of CD reviews in Spectrum, which I managed to wrangle for classical music a couple of times. I quite like writing theme-based longer pieces combining a number of events (although it’s not the sports-style report which the performers might prefer.) Peter has also experimented with doing a round up of a number of concerts in the 350 space but the danger is you end up skating over the surface. I genuinely believe that people want to read good content, and that there will continue to be a demand for it. The viable business model, however, is still a work-in-progress. Bloody Capitalism!

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