On Writing Music

When I first started my blog, I wanted to improve my writing, but I didn’t know what to write. I decided on reviewing music because I constantly listen to music. When I work, when I drive, when I eat and even when I go to sleep, music was always around me. Music always put me into a mood. I get emotional, excited or even sleepy and I wanted to just write down how I feel when I listen to a song or an entire album.

I struggled tremendously trying to find the right words to describe my thoughts on something I have heard. I began to read any music reviews I could get my hands on and wrote down passages that sounded good to me or something I would have said on my own. I have filled two notebooks of little sentences and paragraphs (mostly from jazz writing) I have collected.

So when I began to review an album, I would listen to it the first time straight through. Then I would listen again track by track and take notes. I then go back into my notebooks and search for the sentences that best described what I wanted to say. When I put my piece together, I revised the sentences and made it all my own.

Once I got the first sentence down, the rest came easy. That first sentence is always important to me because it has to be catchy. Sometimes just the first sentence alone would take me half an hour to write and I can’t write the whole piece until I get that first sentence. The entire process could take me up to two hours to write one album.

I slowly began to move away from the notebooks and just began to write on my own. I still read reviews and write down things that I liked, but I hardly refer back to them when I write. Nowadays, a review could be written in one commuting trip, which is around half an hour. I can’t live without my MP3 player.

In the past five years, I have penned 597 music reviews ranging from Vietnamese to jazz to hip-hop to live concerts. These pieces come highly from my personal opinion. I am not a music critic and I am not trying to be one. I just want to write down how I feel and sometimes they are highly favorable and many times very offensive.

I don’t have any music training background other than a jazz history course I audited at Vassar College. That class was an ear-opening and made me appreciate the art of jazz and improvisation even more. I also enrolled in Music 101, but quickly dropped after two weeks of class. The course attempted to teach students to hear, write and read notes. I started to picked up technical terms, which was good. But then I tended to focus on the technical aspects and lost the emotional connection and my personal approach when listening to a piece of music. I started to pick out B-flat major and G minor instead of focusing on the sounds of music.

I don’t want to write like a musician. I just want to write the way I hear music. When listening to jazz, John Coltrane and Miles Davis for example, I am not interested in how they had done it, but the end result of how well they executed. I am more interested in the feelings Coltrane brought rather than how high he could blow. I am more interested in the tones and the moods Miles played rather than the notes.

For singers, I am interested in the way they convey the lyrics than the way they scream at the top of their lung. Billie Holiday for example, I don’t care how she played with the timing, but I do care the way expressed the lyrics and the placement of words without losing the tempo. (Listen to her phrasing in “All the Way.”)

In retrospection, I had fun writing about music and get to share my thoughts with my readers. Although it has taken quite a chunk of my free time, the investment was worthwhile in improving my English. It takes more discipline than simply writing a journal.