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Writing in Music

By Dr. Will Peebles

  • Will PeeblesWriting is important to human beings for the purposes of communication, history, agreements, and task management. It is especially important in music because this field has a long literary tradition. But because music is an art of sound, communicating about it clearly is often difficult. In one of his films, Woody Allen said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  The line is funny, but it also is a good analogy for the difficulty we experience in using one art form to communicate about another. Many people share the view of Romantic poets who said that music was capable of expressing things unable to be said in words, and musicians often use this idea as an excuse for not making the effort to write about music clearly or intelligently. However, this task can be done.

  • To me, the relationship between clear writing and clear thinking is critical. The achievement of clarity requires the correct use of words and punctuation, as well as logical formal organization. I provide more thorough feedback on formal writing assignments than I do on informal writing assignments. However, I correct any grievous errors I see, and I sometimes suggest a visit to the Writing and Learning Commons.

  • Writing is successful when the author has a point of view that encompasses the evidence presented, deals justly with contrary evidence, and interprets the evidence in a manner appropriate to its historical context. A paper that is interesting and fun to read shows evidence of an intelligent mind at work in its creation.

  • Students who make Bs have written a good, solid paper that is free of factual errors but lacks the personality and insight of a truly excellent effort. It may have a few more technical errors in the writing as well.

  • Students who make Cs have written papers with more serious errors in fact or technique, suggesting a lack of understanding on the student’s part. The broader implications of a topic usually are lacking, as is a clear historical context.

  • Students who make Ds have written papers that often have one or more major errors in fact or interpretation. The paper often is very poorly written. However, it shows a good, honest effort at finding information and presenting it in one’s own words.

  • Students who fail have made a dishonest effort while writing—either outright plagiarism or mere assemblage of quotations from one or more sources, even if properly cited.

  • Writing in my classes varies according to the type of course. In Music History (the most writing-intensive class), I typically require both formal and informal writing, most of it outside of class. In music theory or music education, exams typically have some component of writing, such as short answers or short essays. Even in lessons and aural skills, I require at least one writing assignment that involves critical self-assessment.

  • Musicians must understand the music they create in order to be successful. Performing musicians often must translate complex musical ideas into words, often in the form of program notes or spoken remarks before a performance. Music educators must communicate clearly with students, parents, other faculty, and the school board. These communications appear in forms such as handouts for students, letters to parents, letters to school boards, and technical manuals. Clear communication of expectations streamlines the processes of ordering equipment or completing projects. For students entering the music business, clear writing can make the difference between getting the job and being unemployed.
 

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