Seven Remarks and a Postscript on Music Criticism

by Joan Arnau Pàmies


    Any type of music is a product of particular social relations of production. There is nothing new in that statement. The creation of music, like the creation of any other art form, is conditioned by circumstances which a priori have little to do with music. For example, for musicians, more pay may lead to more rehearsal time, which in turn will have an impact on the nature of the final performance. Less pay may also lead to more rehearsal time, but in this case one would assume that these hypothetical, underpaid musicians probably have other sources of income, including day jobs or inherited wealth. The amount of money musicians get paid may have to do with the interest of a given patron to support a particular type of music, but there are other reasons that explain the larger structural workings of money in music. These reasons include supply and demand, what is thought of as valuable, and what is thought of as profitable, both economically and culturally.     


    There is nothing especially romantic about music. Like any other workers, professional musicians sell their labor power in exchange for wages. Or, to put it in less technical terms, they make music for a living, similarly to how plumbers fix pipes for a living, or how cooks prepare food for a living. Nevertheless, music may perhaps be romanticized more easily than plumbing: after all, musicians love what they do; what musicians do is beautiful. A common belief among the general public is that musicians have creative minds. This is somewhat true, but musicians are not necessarily more creative than plumbers and cooks.

    A particularly unpopular view, though not untrue, is that most musicians are not exceptionally creative in that they copy, repeat, and reiterate conventional forms of expression. These practices should not be perceived as bad or mediocre in and of themselves. There is something suspicious about some of the positions that defend a need for creativity. Lack of creativity has negative connotations among musicians; musicians want to be creative. But for what reason? Why would creativity be considered valuable? Creativity does not carry any inherent value: it is neither positive nor negative. Instead, the value of creation emerges in the negation of entities that appear to remain external to that very creation. Creativity exists in struggle: it is expressed in the narrow, conflicting space that separates constraints determined by repressive cultural, economic, and social structures and those forms of subjective resistance that materialize in the aesthetic dimension. If “non-creative” musicians must be criticized for a reason, it should not be due to their apparent lack of creativity, but to their denial of and psychological self-confinement from the brutality inflicted by repressive powers. True creativity is a dialectical act, which requires creators to face the turmoil of history.      


    Music criticism, by virtue of its externality in relation to the musical piece at stake, can shed light on the dialectics of creativity. Why music criticism? Here is a short answer: music criticism allows for an appreciation that music is a product of particular social relations of production. Music criticism is also a vehicle whereby listeners receive greater insight into how music may enhance their own subjectivity. Music is a source of data that listeners interpret and judge according to their cognitive abilities, knowledge, and general expectations. The more developed these areas, the more easily listeners recognize not only the phenomenological multifacetedness of the musical experience, but also the connections between that very experience and their perception of reality. Music criticism thus has the power to emphasize the contradictory nature of music, which stems from a material reality that can be challenged through the music’s own internal formal means. Music criticism both describes how music is created and shares an interpretation—that of the critic—of what that music attempts to do beyond the conditions from which it emerged in the first place.  


    Music criticism may sometimes be seen as a discipline that has no justification to exist. After all, who is so-and-so to judge (kritikos, krinein) the quality of a piece of music? This is a fair concern, which is largely justified due to the poor quality of much music criticism. A list of adjectives, whether positive or negative, included in the review of a musical performance does not lead to music criticism—the description of a musical piece in performance is not criticism. Instead, it is a poor attempt to legitimize the critic’s position based on their labor conditions (e.g., the newspaper or medium they work for). The critic can earn their legitimacy through the development of coherent arguments that examine the multiple dimensions embedded in the musical work—historical context, materials, general aesthetic attempt, process of creation, semiology, etcetera—and determine their contradictions. Additionally, the critic must examine their own categories of analysis: to claim that a piece “works” means absolutely nothing. “Works” according to what? What is the foundation upon which the argument is made? What is its ideological basis?


    Due to hyper-commodification and a general consciousness built on the “I buy/I don’t buy” binomial, music is generally processed in such dichotomous terms as well—“I like it/I don’t like it.” If the analytical framework of a given review is not determined in advance, then readers may be prone to assume the default ideological framework—i.e. “I like it/I don’t like it”—thus effectively rendering music criticism yet another perpetuator of consumerist ideology. Music criticism should never provide simplistic answers about complex musical artifacts. Statements about musical quality that only stem from one’s experience of a given performance are meaningless in the context of criticism. Even worse, such statements reiterate an essentializing, tautological logic: I am x and my review is justified on the basis of my being x.   


    Music criticism may be written for the general public, but that should not necessarily simplify the discussion around music itself. Certain musical questions are better expressed in technical terms. “An unresolved dominant” carries more specificity than “a tense section”; the use of the term “Bhairav raga” (a traditional mode used in Indian classical music) provides more insight regarding pitch organization than common orientalist statements, including the term “ethnic music.” Reviews could embody opportunities to introduce basic terminological knowledge, from which readers and listeners would certainly benefit. To put it in different words: music criticism could be a means to increase musical literacy among the general public. Instead of feeding into consumerist logic, putting oneself on a pedestal, and publicly expressing a personal opinion based on a yes, a no, or a maybe to a given piece, the critic could musically educate the public, as long as the critic earns their legitimacy through argumentative strength, fact-based information, and critical thinking.


Postscript: Some readers may have ethical problems with the idea of “musically educating the public.” This is understandable, but it also is an unjustified and ultimately dangerous position. Such views coalesce into the negation of musical expertise, and are also prone to negate the notion of expertise itself. Without some degree of musical expertise, we would have never been able to experience music that required high technical level and historical and aesthetic knowledge for its creation. Without some degree of general expertise, we would still be in the Stone Age. However, we should be careful not to become technophiles. Expertise alone is not enough. Instead, it must be accompanied by a critical examination of what expertise itself means. Nothing must fall outside of critique, especially the self.