How to Write a Music Essay

How to Write a Music Essay


The study of Music requires engagement with the rich variety of practical and theoretical conventions that obtain in the interplay of sound and silence which comprise the musical art form. In critical terms, one is consequently concerned with compositional and aesthetic principles that govern the medium, associated traditions and emergent ideas. These translate to no fixed mode of advance, per se; but, rather, suggest many different avenues of approach. More traditionally, this included a focus on such concepts as melody and harmony, tempo and meter, timbre and cadence, among many other formal attributes; and successful writing on Music will certainly require a firm understanding of the above. In more recent years, however, Music studies have expanded greatly to include a broader conception of how and why music functions, and even what music is precisely; allowing for more abstract and arguably philosophical implications. For instance, transformational theory moves focus away from individual musical objects (i.e. major chords) and toward the relational properties that mediate such objects (the interplay between major chords). Other contemporary examples include Music Psychology, which examines the cognitive processes at work in the experience of music; Music Semiology, which examines the production of meaning through signs fabricated in aural expression; or postmodern music theory, which challenges conventional notions of how to consume to music, offering alternate “listening strategies” and ways of understanding same.

Top quality writing on Music requires the student to engage with both established precepts of the discipline as well as recent developments which problematise those precepts. Regardless of which exact critical line one follows, one needs to be able to draw logical connections between the compositional properties of music practice and the abstract principles of music theory. Music studies, then, call for competence in treating music as both a physical craft (which may be produced by hand) and an intellectual form (which operates at a physiological level). As a crafted (and largely) performance-based medium, music exhibits specific organisational characteristics which may be delineated. This requires close attention to detail, analytical rigour and logical reasoning. One wants to summon formal logic. As an intellectual construct, music encompasses many abstract and symbolic aspects which likewise may be circumscribed and interrogated, only, from a less prescriptive vantage. This requires deconstruction of themes and motifs as multivalent forms, emotive and psychological determiners. Here, one wants to engage with inferential reasoning. Because prescriptive accounts will not suffice, some descriptive treatment is needed – though this should be tempered with analyses. Hence one might note that major chords are often used to evoke happiness while minor chords are frequently employed to melancholic effect. While this observation is a good starting point from a formal point of view, it does little analytically to illuminate the subject. One at this stage might wish to consider why certain waveforms elicit particular physical reactions and the psychological/emotional effects thereof – building this into a deeper argument about, for instance, the cognitive effects of various waveform combinations. The point is that first-rate writing on Music not only identifies and describes such features; it evaluates and analyses them, synthesising the formal and the thematic in order to make practically comprehensible what is, at core, an abstract art form.

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