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articles      "You Asked for It -- On Handling Critiques"
"You Asked for It -- On Handling Critiques"

 » jmelko, 12/19/10 21:59:38

Presenting a Song--Why Bother?

Gene Fowler, a noted journalist and biographer (1890-1960), once noted, "Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead." The bloodletting doesn't really begin, however, until the writer presents his or her work to fellow craftsmen for critiquing.

Why do we do it? After the thrill of inspiration, the agony of crafting, the relief of finishing, and the pride of creating, the songwriter then turns to his or her peers and asks for "honest feedback"--somewhat the equivalent of requesting exploratory surgery without anesthetic.

Actually, there are many reasons why we invite criticism of our work. Depending on the songwriter's level of dedication to mastering the craft, any one or all of the reasons may apply.


No matter how much we insist that we are primarily looking for constructive criticism, there isn't one of us who doesn't thrill to the praise of our peers. Sometimes, however--even when we do claim we are looking for suggestions for improvement--what we are secretly expecting is a unanimous endorsement: "It's great!" "Wouldn't touch a word of it!" "This baby is going all the way to the top!"


Obviously one of the primary reasons to invite others to critique my song is that I want to know how I can improve it. One of the fundamental problems with any artistic endeavor is that the artist sees the work not only as a product of craft but also as a product of his or her intentions. Most of the time, I believe I have communicated what I intended to communicate through a song. It is only when I hear the reactions of others that I can see that my song is confusing, or that it's misleading, or that it's sending a completely different message than I intended. The frequency with which writers exclaim, "Now why didn't I see that?" is a reliable indicator of how incapable we are of seeing the problems in our own work--and just about every songwriter I've ever met has expressed discouragement that he or she can see the flaws in the songs of others, but not in his or her own songs.


Critiquing sessions are also valuable educational experiences in the craft of songwriting. The songwriter who has yet to master hook placement will learn more in a critiquing session that calls for her to "frame" her hook in the chorus than she ever will in abstract lessons about power positioning. Likewise, participating in a critique in which one's own initial judgment that another writer's song is "perfect" is countered by a substantial list of recommended improvements from the rest of the group can lead to important revelations about how much one still has to learn.

Feedback and Suggestions

Critiquing usually takes one of two forms, either of which can be helpful. First is feedback--reactions from other songwriters as a demanding audience. Feedback provides the songwriter with a test of how well the message as been communicated, and how effectively it was delivered; in other words, the critiquer's reactions are provided. Here are a few samples of feedback statements:

• This doesn't work for me.
• This sounded funny.
• I don't understand this.
• This bothered me.
• This is confusing.
• This is what I heard--is that what you wanted?

In contrast, suggestions--the critiquer's own contributions of craft and creativity--can actually provide the songwriter with answers for resolving issues:

• Here's a way to fix it.
• Here's the way to fix it.
• Here's the way I'd write it.
• Junk everything you've done and do it this way.

Either kind of critique--feedback or suggestions--can be helpful, but they can also be harmful. The problem every songwriter faces in evaluating a critique is determining which comments are worth paying attention to, and which ones should be ignored.

When a Critique Goes Bad....

Ask an opinion of one person, and you get a different perspective. Ask an opinion of a group of songwriters, and you get multiple personality disorder. Many songwriters will tell everyone that they welcome any and all critiques, that they always find value in criticism. Theirs is a faith that can move mountains--the only problem is that the mountains don't always need moving. There are as many types of criticism as there are perspectives, and I won't pretend to cover them all. But if we are aware of some of the most common types, we may be more prepared to recognize and beware of them.

Follow the rules

The number of songwriters whose teeth are bared at the mention of songwriting "rules" is matched only by the number of songwriters who fanatically believe in them. The problem is that we confuse standards with rules.

A standard is a widely accepted way of doing things or a generally established expectation for quality (such as the standard used in Nashville for evaluating songs, "commercially viable"). Standards help to define excellence, but innovation often violates standards--and then even redefines them. For example, the Beatles certainly defied standards before their work became the new standard.

By contrast, a rule is a rigid expectation that must be met for acceptance. A rule embodies the conceit that a single principle can apply to all situations and forever define what is proper.

One of my favorite lines from my pastor is, "Wanna make God laugh? Tell Him you have a plan." That line is easily extended to, "Wanna make a good songwriter laugh? Tell him there's a rule...."

A standard can be useful to help us aim higher, but a rule can actually detract from a good song if it is inappropriately applied. In our Songwriters Workshop at SouthBrook (the Dayton/Cincinnati chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International), we have two rules:

A. Every song has its own set of rules.
B. Your job is to figure out what they are without messing it up.

So when someone tells you something isn't "right" because it violates a rule, be wary. If someone tells you something isn't "right" because it interferes with communication--it's not clear, or it offends, or it's distracting--then there probably is a problem.

Your job isn't to satisfy someone else's rules. Your job is to communicate as effectively as you can--and if that means doing something no one else has ever done (and violating the "rules" in the process), then you may have set a new standard for songwriting excellence!

Defensive Whining

Defensiveness is a natural reaction to an attack on something we love. Even the most advanced songwriters undoubtedly fight the tendency to be defensive when they hear criticism.

By now, you've probably noticed that I love to categorize, because I believe that to name it is to know it. In leading our workshop for more than eight years, I've observed several forms of defensiveness:

First strike: critiquing your song before you even present it. ("I know that the chorus doesn't work, and the second verse really stinks, but I just want your feedback....") For those of you who tend to do this, I have one word of advice: shut up. Maybe your song really does reek, but that doesn't excuse you from the rigors of getting an honest critique. Let the song speak for itself; if it's ever going to go anywhere, it's going to do it without you tagging along to apologize for it.

Good intentions: explaining what you intended to say before you hear what was communicated. Again, shut up and let the song speak for itself. If your message isn't received as you intended it, wait until the critique ends and then share what you intended so that you can hear why it didn't work

Filibustering: filling up the air and/or your critiquing time with your own voice in a conscious or unconscious attempt to head off criticism. Our critique sessions are often timed to ensure we get through all the songs we have to hear, and I've seen many songwriters waste their allotted time telling us how they came to write the song or what they think of it. Again, shut up. Recognize your need to talk for what it is: a way of sheltering your song from criticism.

Lack of engagement: writing a song and never presenting it for critiquing. Learning from critiques is the primary means for advancing your level of craft. Get on with it!

I Can't Believe What I'm Seeing

Wherever there are people gathered together, there is weirdness. It may be because we are so intent on our vision that we can't see the obvious. Other times, there is such a gap between the reactions to the song and our vision for it that we feel as if we've stepped into the Twilight Zone. Once again, I've seen this take several forms, both good and bad:

The aliens have landed: “What in the world are they talking about?” I have heard songwriters complain that one of the taped critiques they've received from a professional organization sounds like the reviewer was accidentally talking about someone else's song. I believe, however, that sometimes our vision is so strong--or our defenses are so high--that we simply cannot see the relevance of a critique. Whenever you begin to wonder what planet your critiquer is on, it's probably a good time to step back and try to listen with an open mind and a different perspective. Maybe the critiquer missed a critical line or made an absurd interpretation--but there's also a good chance that you miscommunicated.

The benevolent wolf pack: “I think I've been mauled!” Consider the following scenario:

1) Critiquer #1 has a problem with something in the song.
2) Critiquer #2 asks #1 for clarification.
3) Critiquer #1 attempts to explain.
4) Critiquer #3 tries to interpret #1 in an attempt to help.
5) Now that it's important, everyone is trying to understand the problem.
6) Suggestions are made; time is consumed.
7) Critiquer #1 has been validated; the songwriter has quite possibly been violated.

What just happened? Well, first of all, it's quite possible that Critiquer #1 was really on to something--that there really is a problem with the song. However, it's also quite possible that Critiquer #1 simply wasn't prepared to critique--a classic example of saying something before one has something to say. The rest of what follows is just human nature--we prefer consensus, we prefer that everyone be happy.

The "benevolent wolf pack" syndrome can be avoided if we don't fall prey (no pun intended) to the need to be acknowledged. When a song doesn't feel right, but we can't put our finger on the problem, it's a good time to remain silent until we do figure it out--even if that means approaching the songwriter privately after the workshop and sharing our concerns. If you give in to the temptation to make your feelings known when you can't define the problem, you will probably set off the wolf pack.

The Goal of Rejection

It is commonly said in Nashville that songwriting is 99% rejection. This leaves us songwriters falling into two categories: those pursuing that rejection in the hope of ultimately finding the 1% acceptance, or those pursuing selfvalidation and calling it “songwriting.” If you are truly serious about becoming a successful songwriter, then you will welcome the pain of critiques as a refining fire that will ultimately lead you to craft song classics.

So the next time you find yourself in the middle of a song critique feeding frenzy, just remember – you asked for it!


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