The Art of Critiquing

I still remember the first time one of my songs was given a critique. My teacher probed at nonsensical lyrics, sections that were weak, my accompaniment that was drowning out the sound of my voice. I remember heat rushing to my cheeks, which must have been beaming red, tears swelling in my eyes, feeling like an utter failure. I felt like my song was so bruised and bent that I might as well just toss it in the trash and write a new damn song! But I collected the critiques, along with my broken ego, and began to fix it up. I spent hours greasing out the piano parts, nailing down the timing, twisting around the melody, and welding the lyrics until, eventually, what I had was better than what I started with. Still, I wish someone had sat me down for a conversation about both giving and receiving critiquing before this.

The first thing that is challenging for most songwriters is learning to separate yourself from the song. It is far too easy to take a critique to heart and let it shatter whatever confidence you might have had. Try not to do this (though I know that’s much easier said than done); it is not productive or helpful in any way. Instead, acknowledge what is good and what needs editing, and remember, even the best songwriters have things to improve!

I had some professors require us to use “the sandwich rule,” which meant that our critiques needed to be sandwiched between two things that we enjoyed about the song. While I believe it’s extremely important to be considerate of how you are critiquing, and this is a decent tool to use when learning to critique, I don’t think this is necessary.

I found myself surprised by some of the feedback in my advanced lyric writing courses. Peers would give comments like “This song is so good,” “You need to pitch this song,” or “The world will love this; it should be on the top charts!” I am all for some good peer support, but sometimes there was not enough constructive feedback! I would dig around, peeling the page for something that could be improved. I would lend a comment about how the chorus could be three lines instead of four to match the unstable feeling; or how the stressing of a certain word felt unnatural. My point here: be picky. But don’t only focus on what needs to be improved. I would also give comments about how certain sections felt incredible because of the rhythmic variation; or how an interesting rhyme scheme pulled me into the song. Positive critiques are just as important when they discuss how and why the song is working. It takes a while to understand different elements and tools that help make a song work. As you become more familiar with the process of songwriting, you should gain a better understanding of how songs come together and how you might be able to critique them.

These are some elements you might consider when critiquing:

  • Saying, “These are some elements you might consider,” is often more effective than saying, “Your song would be better if.” If you suggest your ideas in a lighter manner, people are more likely to be open to your feedback.
  • My songwriting professor Pat Pattison often asked things like, "is the writer going for a stable or unstable feeling? Does the rhyme scheme, number of lines, line length, and line placement support this desired feeling?"
  • Pat would also ask, “does the writing preserve the natural shape of language? Are there unnatural stresses? Is a single sentence split up between different lines?” Consider these elements when you are analyzing songs.
  • Is there enough variation between the different sections? Can you easily distinguish the verses, chorus, and bridge?
  • Consider the point of view. Does it change halfway through the song, confusing the listeners? Once again, to reference my own teacher Pat Pattison, “Who’s speaking to whom and why?” Make sure the audience has a clear understanding of this.

A Few Things To Remember:

  • Receiving criticism can be challenging. Try to separate yourself from your music when receiving song critiques.
  • When giving a critique, discuss the things you love about the song and the things you think need improvement. Talk about why and how these elements are or are not working.
  • Approach your comments with phrases like “You might consider...” Or “It would be interesting to try…” Instead of more hostile approaches like “Your song would be better if…”

It took me years to become comfortable receiving and giving critiques, and honestly, I'm still a work in progress! These are just some of the things I’ve noticed along the way. I hope something from this post proves useful to you. As always, I’m open to feedback and critiques on this post about the art of critiquing!!

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