for the Journal of Music
The Journal of Music is an online music magazine based in Ireland and read worldwide. Founded in 2000, it began as a bimonthly print publication and subsequently won the Utne Independent Press Award for Arts Coverage in Washington DC. In 2010, the Journal moved fully online and now has hundreds of thousands of readers around the world. The magazine covers a wide range of genres, particularly classical, contemporary, traditional, folk, indie, opera, jazz, improvised and alternative popular music. The Journal has been supported by the Arts Council since its inception.
Over the past three years, the Journal has run a number of Music Writer Mentoring Schemes – in Clare, Galway and Northern Ireland – with the purpose of developing new writing talent. An added benefit of this process has been that we have had to formulate some of the editorial practices that have been part of the culture of the publication since the beginning but which we had previously been doing instinctively. This document includes a number of those ideas. Our aim is that it will assist contributors to the Journal in the future.
Reviewing for the Journal of Music
There are many opinions on what is good music reviewing, but for the Journal of Music the purpose of a review is two-fold:
1. To provide a detailed public record of a concert, album or book; and
2. To give the reader an informed perspective on the concert, album or book.
The reviewer is therefore part reporter and part critic. If a writer can document or report upon a new work or performance in a detailed way, they are then well positioned to provide an informed perspective on it. The popular image of a music review as all opinion is not how we look at it. Creating a clear and engaging record of the music is the first step, and your opinion comes after.
When it comes to writing the review, we have found that similar issues tend to crop up in the editorial process so we have tried to formulate some of our thoughts below. These points are an approximate formula for approaching the writing of a review.
(i) A condensed introduction
We cannot know whether a reader arriving at your review online will know a lot about the subject or a little. We therefore need to account for both. The Journal’s ethos is that music writing should be as accessible as possible to the broadest audience.
Beginning with a concise but tightly packed introduction is therefore a useful start. Please introduce the reader to the artist, drawing on your own independent listening to their music to date. Tell the reader about the artist’s previous work and what you believe is significant or interesting about it. Please make sure to include the particular context for the performance, recording or publication under review in your introduction. Keep this section detailed but brief in order to allow enough space to focus on the work under review later on.
(ii) Don’t give the game away
Your opinion is naturally one of the most powerful tools that you have to keep the reader reading until the end of your review. It is important, therefore, not to give the game away at the beginning. Readers read to find out about an artist but also to compare their own thoughts to that of the reviewer. You can provide hints as to what you think during the course of a review, but in the first couple of paragraphs avoid telling the reader what you thought overall. Hold back. This will encourage the reader to stay reading.
(iii) Describing the music
Writing about music is a fascinating challenge. No sooner have the sound waves entered your ears then they are leaving you again, but including a detailed description of the music you have heard is essential, both for the public record and because your opinion – when it comes – will subsequently carry more weight.
Practically speaking, keeping notes during a live performance as an aide memoire is useful, but how detailed those notes are is up to you. Some writers like to write detailed notes during a performance, others prefer to write them down afterwards.
When describing the music in the actual review, the key, as the great book editor Sol Stein once wrote with regard to fiction, is to show, don’t tell. For example, when you mention a characteristic of a piece of music – or make a statement about it – provide the reader with an example. Describe the sounds. Play it over in your head and find the right words. Fresh music deserves fresh language. Ask yourself what moments or passages stood out for you, and, in your own voice, try to explain why in as much detail as possible.
The descriptions of the music will likely be a substantial part of your review and it is an essential aspect. Your words may be the only in-depth record of an event that we have for posterity. In the words of the late music writer Bob Gilmore (a contributor to the Journal of Music between 2005 and 2012), ‘Music criticism should be, in part, a record of how music felt in its own time.’
Descriptions should be detailed, and yet, while digital publishing does allow longer word-counts, it is unlikely that you will be able to include everything about the music in your review. Every word has to earn its keep and contribute to making an engaging piece.
A little note: In order to avoid generic writing (i.e. writing that isn’t specific enough), try this trick: In every passage where you describe an artist’s music or a particular work, insert the name of another artist or work from the same genre. If the passage still makes sense, then it may not be detailed enough. Please try and describe the music in such a way that you could not say the same thing about another artist or work.
Work your way through the performance, recording or publication chronologically, unless there are certain ideas or parts that suggest they should be grouped differently.
(iv) Basic details
Amongst everything else, we also need to know the who, where, what, when and why of the event, recording or publication. Please don’t forget to include basic details such as artist names, venues and instrumentation. Insert what you consider the most important event or publication details at the beginning and filter the rest throughout.
(v) And finally…
Endings are key. Everything you have written so far is building up to it. The reader has stayed with you. They may have some idea of your opinion at this stage, but they are looking for clarity and a clear statement. Consider holding one of your more substantial points, or even your most deeply felt point of view, until the final section or paragraph. This is the moment to express what you ultimately felt about the work and why.
End note: the bigger picture
If you observe the above points when writing – and of course we are always open to other creative approaches that nonetheless achieve the same thing – we believe you will have an interesting review. But there is something else. Sometimes new work says something more about our lives and/or contemporary events. As well as reviewing, try standing back and looking at the bigger picture. Is this new work making a broader point about contemporary society? Does it contain rare insights into our lives today? It is not always essential to include this, but if you think it, say it.
Word counts, the editorial process, and accessibility
We aim to publish in-depth concert, recording and book reviews, pieces that make a substantial contribution to music discourse. Live reviews and recording reviews can be between 600 and 1000 words, and book reviews can be between 1000 and 2000 words. Longer reviews are possible in consultation with the editor.
After you submit your review, we usually respond with some queries or suggestions ahead of publication. Although not always possible, we aim to publish concert reviews within a week of the event, and recording and book reviews as near as possible to the date of publication.
And, finally, a word on accessibility. We are located in Ireland, but fifty per cent of our readers are outside the country – thirty per cent are in the UK and the USA, and the remaining twenty per cent come from every corner of the globe. A reader may land on your review having never come across the Journal before. It is therefore important that every review reaches out to the reader, using language that is engaging and accessible.
Should you have any comments or questions about this document please email editor [at] journalofmusic.com. We pay a set rate for reviews. If you are interested in contributing to the Journal, please send us a sample of your work.
We look forward to working with you.
Editor, The Journal of Music
28 August 2019