Music Journalism

Published 22 Aug, 2019

Do you all have a favorite music writer, critic, or journalist that you gravitate towards? I grew up in Seattle, Washington, and was lucky enough to consistently read Melinda Bargreen’s reviews in the Seattle Times. She’s written for the local newspaper since 1977, and has seen the rise and fall of many conductors (at the Seattle Symphony alone, Rainer Miedel, Gerard Schwarz, Ludovic Morlot, and now, Thomas Daausgard) and has seemingly outlasted all of them. 

I was lucky enough to grab coffee with Melinda last year, and her advice was simple: if you want to write about music, just start writing about music.

“You know what you should do?” she asked as she stirred her grande drip. “Start a music blog. Write about everything you go to. Post it on Facebook, you know, and everywhere else.” Curiously enough, Melinda got her Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, and truly stumbled into the job of musical criticism. She read a terribly written opera review in her local paper, and called the editor to complain. “I don’t normally do this, but this review is just awful,” she told him. 

“Well, what would you have written?” he asked. She sent him her own review, and the rest -- as the saying goes -- is history.

Over Viennese pastries and copious caffeine, we discussed the current state of music writing (“If you want to get paid for it, you have to do it for free first”), journalism (abysmal), and loving classical music generally (many hard knocks, but worth it).

Here was Melinda’s advice for writing about music with a critical eye:

  1. Review every concert you go to.

  2. Reviews should be brief, about 400-500 words long.

  3. Note the who/what/when/where/why in the article, and then write about what made the performance special or different.

  4. Try to give your readers a sense of what it was like to sit in your chair in the audience.

Besides being a clear and concise writer, Melinda is a lovely person. 

Another music writer I’ve admired for years is Alex Ross. He’s written for the New Yorker since 1996, and recently visited my college to lecture on his latest book on Wagnerism and 19th century authors. I discovered him through a theory professor at Scripps. We were discussing atonal and twelve-tone music, and I confessed to this professor that I didn’t really get it. “What’s all the fuss about? This music isn’t exactly pleasurable,” I told him. He recommended Ross’s The Rest is Noise, which ended up shifting the way I thought about and wrote about atonal music. 

Do you have a favorite music critic or music journalist? What do you like most about them?

Written by Melia Wong