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Issues: How do you describe music to people who may have no idea what you're talking about?

By John Terauds on March 14, 2013

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I had a shock of recognition as I read British music critic Jessica Duchen’s post today on U.K. site CultureKicks on the difficulties of writing or speaking about music if your audience doesn’t know the basics.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Duchen writes about the self-censorship of the critic who wonders whether it might sound pompous to use “crescendo” in a review.

It made me think of all the times I’ve stared at my computer keyboard while writing a review for the Star. Do I use the correct plural for tempo, or do I leave it colloquial? If I write about a cadence, will the reader confuse it with rhythm or tempo? Is there any point in mentioning a transition from major to minor?

How many musical terms is an average reader familiar with? Anyone who has seen even one episode of American Idol has heard the term “pitchy,” and I’ve even started hearing it used in (pop) musical circles. So if I write flat or sharp instead of pitchy, or describe problems with intonation, does this make me sound like a snob, or, worse yet, incomprehensible?

Duchen writes:

Perhaps due to the near-abolition of music lessons in school during the 1980s, a lack of discourse in the media, or the lingering misery of compulsory Grade V Theory exams for those of us who were musical kids, traditional musical vocabulary is vanishing from all but the most academic publications. Even Howard Goodall’s The Story of Music on BBC TV found the doughty presenter having to explain something as basic as an octave. This really is equivalent to identifying the letters of the musical alphabet. One term we do need to lose is ‘dumbing down’ – because the truth is closer to ‘de-skilling’.

She suggests we need a new language to describe music. But that’s a lot like reinventing the wheel.

But for anyone who has to communicate about music, it is a very important issue.

You can read the full post here.

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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