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You may encounter this assignment in a music history or appreciation course.An instructor might ask you to pick a piece of music and discuss its historical context.
A possible thesis might be “Because Mozart wanted a job in Paris, he wrote a symphony designed to appeal to Parisian tastes.” If that is your argument, then you would focus on the musical elements that support this statement, rather than other elements that do not contribute to it.
For example, “Though his Viennese symphonies featured a repeated exposition, Mozart did not include a repeat in the symphonies he composed in Paris, which conformed more closely to Parisian ideas about musical form at the time.” This observation might be more helpful to your argument than speculation about what he ate in Paris and how that influenced his compositional process.
How do the music and text (a song’s lyrics, an opera’s libretto) work together? Does it have some type of pattern or other play with words? For more on word play and rhyme schemes, see our handout on poetry explications.
You may complete this assignment for a music history or appreciation class. Now look at the text and listen to the music with it.
This handout features common types of music assignments and offers strategies and resources for writing them.
Elvis Costello once famously remarked that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” While he may have been overstating the case, it is often difficult to translate the non-verbal sounds that you experience when you listen to music into words. ) How your description of music becomes an analysis of music depends on the kind of assignment you are answering.Generally these include casual value judgments such as “good,” “bad,” “lame,” “awesome,” “girly,” “soulful,” etc.These words may be fine when discussing an album with your friends, but they are not acceptable descriptors in academic writing.For example, instead of saying “The chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds angrier than the verses,’ you might argue that, “The added distortion in the guitar, increase in volume, and additional strain on Kurt Cobain’s voice give the chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an angrier or more critical tone than the verses.” On occasion, or in some assignments, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of technical vocabulary used to describe even the simplest musical gestures.Over the past thousand years, the study of music (particularly Western classical music) has acquired a host of specialized terms from Latin, Italian, German, and French, many of which remain untranslated in common usage. If you have questions about these terms, ask your instructor or consult a reliable music dictionary.Does the composer bring out certain words or lines of text? For example, you might say, “In the chorus of ‘Poses,’ Rufus Wainwright sets his first line of text to a long, arching melody, reminiscent of opera.” This describes the music and lets the reader know what part you are talking about and how you are hearing it (it reminds you of opera).Now tell the reader what is significant about this. “The text suggests that ‘you said watch my head about it,’ but this rising operatic melody seems to suggest that the singer is really floating away and gone into another world.” Now your description of the music functions as evidence in an argument about how the song has two layers of meaning (text and music).The most glaring of these words, however, and the one that your instructors will undoubtedly be on the lookout for is “authenticity” (and its close relatives “authentic,” “real,” genuine,” etc.).Instructors are particularly bothered by this word for two reasons: Examining the ways in which a particular style, band, or song came to be understood as “authentic” by its fans can be a valuable subject of inquiry, but any time you come across the word—in your or someone else’s writing—you should imagine it in scare quotes and try to more closely examine what the author is trying to say with the word in that particular context.This is different from a music review in which you pass judgment on how “well” the players performed.Your professor might be okay with you adding your opinion, but most professors want you to listen closely to the music and try to describe it as accurately as possible using some of the vocabulary you’ve learned in class.