‘We need music criticism more than ever nowadays’

‘We need music criticism more than ever nowadays’


norman lebrecht

March 20, 2017

Ted Gioia complains that music critics have turned into lifestyle reporters:

When I was a child, Gunther Schuller’s byline appeared in Saturday Review, and Leonard Bernstein hosted music specials on CBS. In my teens, I could read smart, musically astute critics in many magazines and newspapers. I might disagree with the judgments of Harold Schoenberg, John Rockwell, Winthrop Sargeant, Robert Palmer, Leonard Feather, Martin Williams, Alfred Frankenstein, and others, but they knew their stuff.  Many of them were musicians themselves. Sargeant had served as a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. Frankenstein had played clarinet with the Chicago Symphony. Palmer gigged in bands before he started writing about them. Feather had recorded as a pianist, and although he would never put Oscar Peterson out of business, he knew his sharps and flats….

We need smart musical criticism more than ever nowadays. In my many years as music scribe, I’ve never encountered such a huge gap between the skilled and the unskilled, the talented and the wannabes. Listening to new releases, I am reminded of how an Australian friend once described the United States to me: “You Americans represent the best of the best, and the worst of the worst, all hopelessly mixed together.” The same is true of the output of the music industry in the present day. I hear artists who can sing like birds, others who would need to retire if Auto-Tune disappeared. I encounter songwriters who have mastered all the nuances of harmony, others who couldn’t modulate keys if you handed them the chords on a silver flash drive. I’m dazzled by performers who possess a deep grasp of rhythm; others apparently haven’t yet figured out the simplest syncopations.

Certainly non-musical factors also deserve attention from critics. We have all encountered artists with very little technical skill, who still succeed because they compensate with an excess of imagination and creative vision. And who knows, maybe waving a foam finger or dressing like a robot warrants a paragraph or two, even if it’s little more than a gimmick. But let’s not kid ourselves, these can’t serve as the foundation for a healthy musical culture. Musical knowledge empowers artistic expression. Critics who are unwilling, or perhaps incapable, of assessing such matters may still have some insights to offer, but they will struggle to fulfil the most basic responsibility of the music critic, which is to pay close attention to the sounds.

Read the full article here.



  • Jon H says:

    There was a really good concert review recently. The critic spent the first half discussing the program, and it was approached like a music appreciation class, not criticizing – just revealing some facts about the pieces, no BS – then the second half was about the performance. A lot of times I’m not convinced the critic understands the music and that affects their understanding of what a good performance might be – and so by the second half of the article he sold this reader anyway that he was in a good position to speak on the performance quality. And while I wasn’t at the concert (out of town), I had a very good idea of how the actual concert was.

    • Jon H says:

      There’s really four kinds of conductor/performer. There’s the kind that adds no seasonings to the dish. There’s the kind that adds the right amount of the wrong seasonings. There’s the kind that adds the right amount of the right seasonings. And then there’s the kind that drops the shaker in the dish and it’s either fantastic or disgusting.

    • MWnyc says:

      About how many words did the critic have for the review?

    • Winger says:

      I went to a very respected college that has a great music department and wonderful performances all the time; it also has a very respected campus newspaper. I was always dismayed by how horrible the criticism was, as though nobody thought it should be a priority to at least advise the student critics of the ways they should (and ideally shouldn’t) approach their job. Instead, the criticism was of the “the violin soloist was loud sometimes, and then the orchestra would play loud, but also soft” variety. It was consistently embarrassing, and it made me sincerely wonder where critics of the future would come from.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Only somewhere halfway of the article the reader gets aware that also classical music is included with the subject, up till then it is all about entertainment music, not serious music. Why should entertainment music need serious music criticism? The confusion about genres and artistic ambition turns the article in a rambling non-theme. It is not only ‘the best’ and ‘the worst’ which is mixed-up in the US, it seems, but also the awareness of those categories. So, the article is embarrassingly self-defeating.

    • Mikey says:

      I thought it was rather obvious: the one that makes the most money and has the biggest crowds has obviously got to be the “best” one. Then there’s the one that no one understands because they’re not as “hip” as the critic, and that one’s obviously the best as well.

      With classical it’s: the one that’s most popular with the audience is obviously NOT the best, since the audience doesn’t know what it’s talking about. The one the audience hates is obviously the best, since only the critic knows what’s good and what isn’t.

      There’s no room for personal preference in musical criticism. The critic’s personal preference is, de facto, the ultimate judgment that is without appeal.

    • jaypee says:

      Jazz is not entertainment.

      And à propos “rambling”, do you have to comment on everything even -especially- when you have no clue?
      I said it before, I’ll say it again: god, you’re tedious… and so full of yourself…
      It’s people like you who turn people away from classical music.

      • M2N2K says:

        Of course jazz is entertainment. And so is so-called classical music. Just a different kind of entertainment. There is an element of entertainment in all performing arts. But every kind of performing arts and even every single piece of performing arts has a different mix of entertainment and “serious” elements in them. All human beings need and crave being entertained, but each person prefers different mixes and different proportions. Kind of like artistic cocktails.

        • John Borstlap says:

          This looks like egalitarian thinking: let there no art form be better than another. But that is nonsense: there is high art, there is low art, and life has different moments for both and needs to make such distinctions. Civilization rests upon the awareness that not everything is as (un-)important as anything else. There is nothing against entertainment but everything against the idea that all art is, basically, entertainment. If this were the case, we would not have classical music, museums with art collections that the whole world wants to see again and again and again, there were no concert halls, operahouses, etc. etc. And fees for classical performers would be so minimal that they could hardly come by.

          Also within the concept of entertainment there is hign and low, and it would merely demonstrate ignorance to think that a spirited entertainment piece like Beethoven opus 130 3rd mvt….


          … would be on the same level as Duke Ellington:


          And then, the Ellington is very good entertainment.

          • M2N2K says:

            “This looks like egalitarian thinking” only to those who can’t read. Reread my comment and tell me where did I say that all kinds of performing arts are equal.

          • John Borstlap says:

            “Of course jazz is entertainment. And so is so-called classical music.”
            “Kind of like artistic cocktails.”

            I know, it’s not easy.

          • M2N2K says:

            You are quoting out of context and claiming to see something there that is clearly not there. Commonality does not mean equality. Those are two very different concepts. Having different amounts of one common ingredient – entertainment – among many in several different genres of performing arts does not make them equal at all.

      • John Borstlap says:

        “It’s people like you who turn people away from classical music.” I think it is rather that people like me turn people like you away from classical music and that seems to be a good thing.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    “Listening to new releases, I am reminded of how an Australian friend once described the United States to me: “You Americans represent the best of the best, and the worst of the worst, all hopelessly mixed together.” ”

    That’s not fair. We also represent the mediocre middle.

  • Una says:

    Two interviews done by Bruce Duffie:

    Marin Alsop http://www.bruceduffie.com/alsop.html

    Gunther Schuller http://www.bruceduffie.com/schuller.html