Writing about Music

by Derek Neal 

I’m not sure anyone has ever figured out how to write about music. This is a dangerous statement to make, and I’m sure readers will be quick to point out writers who have been able to capture something as intangible as sound via the written word. This would be a happy result of this article, and I welcome any and all suggestions. I should also say that I don’t mean there are no good music writers; there are, and I have certain writers I follow and read. But the question of how to write about music remains a tricky one.

As far as I can tell, most writing about music is built on analogies and cliches. This is understandable; you can’t describe music literally because it wouldn’t give an accurate representation of what it is you’re hearing. What use is it to say that a song is written in the key of A minor, has a tempo of 110 beats per minute, and follows a 4/4 time signature? These facts don’t add up to much. On the other hand, using analogies to describe music is meant, I suppose, not to state the objective facts of a song but to capture the experience of listening to a song and the subjective emotional response created within the listener. Perhaps, in combining technical, factual description of a song with figurative language, a song can be captured via text and the reader can hear the song in their head without ever actually having heard it out loud. This seems to be the goal of most music reviews.

I was put in mind of all this when I read an article in this month’s issue of Harper’s about the transition from the pre-internet world to the digital world of today. The author, Hari Kunzru, was writing about how he would read descriptions of music in magazines and try to imagine what the music sounded like, which does bring up the question: when we can listen to any song instantly, is it even necessary to attempt to put music into words? Perhaps the genre of the music review is simply a historical anomaly that has run its course. This may be true, but the same could be said and has been said for the novel, the essay, and many other forms of traditional composition. And yet here I am, writing these words, so I’ll continue to explore the description of music and attempt to achieve its goal of transmitting sound via written language.

In Kunzru’s article, he quotes an example of the kind of review that he would read which would then lead him to purchasing an album: “The Young Gods open up space along the vertical—trapdoors open up between the beat; suddenly, the ceiling rises vertiginously; corridors branch out, down which sounds recede and loom.” I have no idea what any of this means, but it’s certainly a valiant effort, and it leads Kunzru to search for the album for months, although when he finally listens to it, it’s nothing like what he’d expected—therein lies the difficulty of describing music, but also the appeal of trying.

One of the best descriptions of music I’ve ever heard came from a man whom I was tutoring. This man, named Travis, was an unexpected source from which to have such a revelation. He had somehow ended up in a summer English composition class comprised of Nigerian and Chinese students half his age, and he struggled. While the other students easily understood what was expected of them in terms of academic writing but sometimes had difficulty with English, the opposite was true of Travis: he was a native English speaker but had problems comprehending the genre of undergraduate academic writing, comprising things like a thesis statement, topic sentences, and referencing sources. There were other things about a university classroom that Travis didn’t understand: one time he opened Microsoft Word to show the professor and me his essay, and his desktop background revealed a woman in a bikini. It might just be my memory playing tricks on me, but I’m pretty sure she was holding a rifle, too. The professor and I, standing behind Travis, looked over his camouflage baseball cap at each other and smiled, shaking our heads. For his part, Travis didn’t seem concerned that we’d seen his background.

When I think back to Travis, who has stayed in my memory while hundreds of other students have faded away, the words that come to mind are “a good guy.” Travis had a high school education but hadn’t been in a classroom setting for many years, and he was attempting to return to school for some sort of degree or certificate. He was able to do this because he worked as a landscaper for the university, and they covered the fees for him to take classes. Travis commuted an hour each way to class, and then he would meet me in the library for his tutoring session. It was in one of these tutoring sessions that we discovered a common interest in music. He liked rock and country music; I liked electronic music. He played guitar and bass, I DJ’d. The more we talked, the more it became apparent that Travis had a deep understanding of how music worked, and he quickly became the teacher in our conversation, while I was the student.

During our conversation, we started to look for a common thread running through the different genres of music that we liked, and we found it in the basslines of the songs. This is when Travis uttered his description of a perfect bassline: it’s like a boat that’s rockin’ back and forth but movin’ forward at the same time. I was speechless. To me, Travis had encapsulated the idea of groove in one sentence, which could also be expressed, I now realize, as side to side movement combined with forward motion.

The specific type of bassline that we’re talking about can also be described in technical terms as opposed to figurative terms. It is often a bassline that has a short note played in between the 4th beat of a measure and the 1st beat of the following measure (in 4/4 time), combined with another longer note on the 1st beat of the following measure. In other words, the first note that is played just before the end of the measure acts like a pickup note (also called an anacrusis, which I learned while writing this article), but unlike a pickup note that only appears at the beginning of a song, this note is repeated every measure. This note, I think, is key in giving a song “groove” or “funk,” while the second bass note hitting on the 1st beat gives the song forward motion. If you remove that first bass note but leave the second one, you’re left with linear motion but no side-to-side groove, like a certain type of techno track that has a kick drum on every downbeat but no discernible bassline. These tracks are often described with adjectives like “pummeling,” “tunneling,” or “industrial.” On the other hand, remove the consistent note on the downbeat and start adding notes all over the place, and you’re left with, possibly, too much funk; things start spinning around and around, but you’ve lost that forward momentum guiding you through the song, like a live solo that goes on too long.

But let’s take advantage of the fact that I’m writing an article on the internet and use some examples. You might remember in the fall of 2020 when a man posted a TikTok video of himself slaloming down a freeway on a skateboard, drinking juice, and listening to “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. The video went viral and eventually lead to “Dreams” re-entering the Billboard Hot 100, which is practically unthinkable for a song released in 1977. An article written on TikTok’s website, attempting to explain the appeal of the video, says that “a vibe might be hard to define, but the TikTok community knows one when they see one.” Leaving aside the idea of a TikTok, ahem, “community,” I think we can understand the appeal of the video and why “Dreams” goes so well with footage of someone cruising on a skateboard.

“Dreams” has one of those basslines we’ve been talking about. It has a pickup note right before the 1st and the 3rd beat of every measure, and then a longer bass note directly on the 1st and 3rd beat. It’s the thing going “ba-bummm, ba-bummm, ba-bummm, ba-bummm,” and occasionally there’s some variation thrown in over the top for added groove. It’s easiest to hear at the very beginning of the song and with headphones or a good pair of speakers (not your laptop). Coupled with this bassline, we have the skateboarder, and what’s he doing? Carving back and forth, but moving forward at the same time, like a boat cutting through the waves. The family size cran-raspberry juice is the cherry on top, but it’s the marriage between the sound and the visuals that is the key to its appeal.

There are many other songs that exploit this type of bassline. Fleetwood Mac did it again with “Gypsy” in 1982, and more recently The War on Drugs did it with “Change” on their latest album. Listen to the last two minutes of “Change” (4:10 on in the above clip) to get the full effect of this type of bassline: it sounds like it could go on forever and provides the steady groove for a meandering piano solo to be played over the top. Indeed, this is the type of repetitive beat that allows for other instruments to express themselves and it’s the part of a song that would be looped and extended in a live version to lengthen the song, break it down, and then build it back up again.

In electronic music, the basslines are often clear and easier to hear. One example is a song called “B2B4” by the Scottish producer Lord of the Isles. The bassline here has less variation than the rock songs we’ve referenced so far, giving it a more linear feel, but it still has that same characteristic of a pickup note and then a longer note on the downbeat. If I can permit myself to lapse into metaphorical language, I’d also say that “B2B4” is shrouded in mist, and forlorn synths cry in the distance over dew covered fields. But you can listen and decide for yourself.