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LucyGransnet (GNHQ) Thu 15-Sep-16 14:16:08

Writing music, music writing

Can you describe how your favourite piece of music makes you feel? Steven Boykey Sidley tells of the torturous process of putting those feelings into words - and making people believe them.

Steven Boykey Sidley

Writing music, music writing

Posted on: Thu 15-Sep-16 14:16:08


Lead photo

Can you accurately describe how your favourite piece of music makes you feel?

I have battled all of my life with an inextinguishable frustration. Someone will ask me to listen to a piece of music that has quickened their hearts and I think, God, what a piece of harmony-challenged, toneless, repetitive, derivative rubbish. Sometimes I am even moved to express my opinion, never with good results.

Conversely I will be moved to tears and cheers by my own musical choices, unable to make the obvious case that my selections are simply better than their dull offerings, a fact that I know with the conviction of the devout. If my music is so axiomatically better, why cannot I not make them hear?

What fails me is words.

And this the nub of the matter. If it is hard to explain emotive response to melody, harmony and rhythm to someone, then it is just as hard to write about it (forget lyrics for the moment - a very different and wriggly can of worms ). Writing about music, not the shiny surface of it but the depths of a why choice of a F# rather than an F against a given chord raises gooseflesh, is a rarefied challenge. Rather like trying to explain painting to a blind man. Or perhaps, more pointedly, trying to write a fittingly climactic description of an orgasm. There is an award for bad sex writing, perhaps there should be one for bad music writing.

If it is hard to explain emotive response to melody, harmony and rhythm to someone, then it is just as hard to write about it.

As a novelist and long-time jazz saxophonist (not a great one, but capable of an occasionally pretty solo), I recently found myself at the writing end of music, armed only with the suddenly paltry tools of words to substitute for the real thing.

When I was barely out of my teens, I wrote an unduly smug letter-to-the-editor complaining about their music critic, who spent the bulk of his reviews describing ambience, audience reaction, musician’s clobber, facial expressions and playlist. Everything but what actually emerged from their instruments. The critic resigned from his post on publication of my letter, presumably humiliated beyond bearing. I still feel shame (my letter was a masterpiece of insult and youthful incivility). I now realise, that part of the critic’s difficulty is that it is unbelievably hard to describe musical performance with anything approaching veracity. Writing is to be read, music is to be heard. Mixing the two is generally a fool's errand.

But not completely. Richard Powers, in his wonderful 2003 novel, The Time of Our Singing, merges genres to an extent that is astonishing, I could clearly hear the music as described, and felt the hairs rise on my back during a solo vocal Bach performance by a young teenager. Ian McEwan also did a wonderful job in his novel, Amsterdam (and a short section in Saturday). I am sure there are others, but they are hopelessly outweighed by ham-fisted, vocab-challenged and tone-deaf attempts to describe the thing, the gestalt, the sacred core - whatever it is that pulls us from the ordinary everyday to the extraordinary few moments that we we hear, metaphorically, the voice of God.

Perhaps the writer should stay within the boundaries of his craft, and not trespass on other arts. But in this art-of-word, as in all other arts, boundaries are there to be breached. So we blunder in and hope that the reader hears the sounds we write.

Steven’s novel, Imperfect Solo, is published by Blue Mark Books and available from Amazon.

By Steven Boykey Sidley

Twitter: @stevensidley

Anya Thu 15-Sep-16 14:56:15

No comment.

jinglbellsfrocks Thu 15-Sep-16 20:41:31

I'm not surprised.


jinglbellsfrocks Thu 15-Sep-16 20:47:42

How can you put music into words?

Ana Thu 15-Sep-16 20:53:10

Why did I just know by reading the first two paragraphs that this was written by a man? hmm

(hadn't read who the blogger was)

Linsco56 Thu 15-Sep-16 21:33:47

"What fails me is words"......really!

grandMattie Sat 17-Sep-16 12:53:26

Like food, love, art and religion, there's no accounting for other people's tastes.
What one mustn't be is judgemental. Yes, i dislike some of my DH's choice of music, but for his sake, I will listen to it and occasionally comment; and vice-versa.
But i agree wholeheartedly that music is impossible to put into words.

Jayh Sat 17-Sep-16 13:13:41

It would be useful for the author to give us an example of the merging of the genres.
Otherwise, I have no idea what is meant. confused

POGS Sat 17-Sep-16 20:35:44

My question to the negative posters is this.

If you take Osborne out of the equation what do you think about the others signed up to it?. No project is just one man/woman.

Osborne started the project whilst Chancellor, he is a Northern MP, he has presumably fought to keep the project going and has the government on board.

If the project turns out to be total shite then fine, go for it , knock it.

As yet the only comments are not really interested in the Northern Power House as a concept just the dislike of George Osborne .

What has happened past or present regarding the Northern Power House project that warrents the acid attack and I repeat ' what is it about the others connected with the project you don't like? Or is it just game to have a go at the man but not the project?????

POGS Sat 17-Sep-16 20:37:35

Wrong blasted thread! Sorry folks


Jalima Sat 17-Sep-16 21:35:05

That's OK, POGS, your post made just as much sense as the OP

And I speak as someone with two professional musicians in the family grin

POGS Sat 17-Sep-16 21:57:31

Jalima grin

The OP was a tad high brow for me , glad to know I am not alone. blush

Sorry Mr Steven Boykey Sidley, absolutely no offence intended , forgive my intrusion.

Jalima Sat 17-Sep-16 22:16:28

DD maybe would make sense of it but I doubt that she goes on GN grin

iCustomBoxes Thu 07-Dec-17 19:56:17

It would may be useful for the author to give us an example of the merging of the genres.

Serkeen Thu 11-Jan-18 15:12:09

torturous process!!! writing songs is supposed to be a labour of love, a passion you have made it sound like he is going down the mines!

Grandma70s Thu 11-Jan-18 15:37:56

It is very difficult to explain why some pieces of music move you and others leave you cold, or why you love one composer but cringe at another. Another person might feel the exact opposite. I’ve talked about this with a friend after concerts sometimes, and we came to no conclusions and found no explanations.

Greyduster Thu 11-Jan-18 16:34:29

I once happened to comment to my piano teacher, when we were discussing the introduction of a new piece to my limited repertoire, that I didn’t like Mozart, and I thought he would faint and, upon regaining consciousness, throw me out bodily, such was his demeanour. I did try and redeem myself by hurriedly explaining that my dislike didn’t extend to his choral works, or most of the operas, but alas, the damage was done!

Grandma70s Thu 11-Jan-18 18:49:02

Greyduster: my brother and SIL, a fine pianist, don’t like Mozart. Turns out they don’t know the choral works or the operas !

Fennel Thu 11-Jan-18 19:07:13

Pretentious rubbish.
From the heading I thought it was going to be about transcribing tunes in your head onto stave paper, which I've done in the past.

Grandma70s Thu 11-Jan-18 19:16:58

That’s what composers do, Fennel, only in their case it’s with all the harmonies and instrumentation as well. Yours might be, too, but you didn't say so.

I don’t find the piece in the OP pretentious rubbish. Isn’t he just trying to say how hard it is to describe music in words? Seems fair enough to me.