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How to Handle Criticism of Your Music

Some people are afraid to have their music criticized. They love what they create so much and are so protective of their music that any form of negative criticism is taken as an attack they feel obliged to defend.

Other people on the other hand, are always looking for criticism from everyone, expecting everybody’s approval, and tend to get confused when a critic of their music contradicts another.

Someone said it lacks melody. Somebody else said the melody is great but repeated too much.  While someone else thinks there’s no problem with the melody, but that there are too many chord changes beneath it.

They start to fix this and that, trying to please everyone. Which, of course, will never happen.

So, how should you deal with criticism of your music? Should you ignore it? Or obsess with it?

My answer would be that you should choose between the criticism you ignore completely, the criticism which you should take with reservations, and the criticism you should take seriously to improve and grow.

In order to be able to do this, I will make clear some distinctions between different types of criticism, so that you can make a more informed choice when you decide whether to give weight to someone’s opinion.

Constructive vs destructive criticism

What makes constructive criticism different from destructive criticism is the intent behind it.

Constructive criticism comes from someone who wishes you good, and the goal of his criticism is, above all, that you become a better musician.

It can be positive or negative, as we’ll see below, but it’s one where you know it is well meaning.

Constructive criticism is usually specific and when it points out a problem, it tends to offer solutions.

Destructive criticism is one that has the wrong intent behind it. And it should always, always, always, be ignored.

Among other things, because that person may be lying.

He might be telling you “your song sucks” but in reality he may envious he can’t write songs of that quality. Or else he may be flattering you, while saying what a mediocre musician you are behind your back.

In real life things are rarely that straight forward, and you can’t always read someone’s intentions. But I’ve seen many musicians waste time and energy on comments from people who only meant them harm.

Especially from anonymous people on the Internet.

If you upload a song on Youtube and the first comment you get is from “PRG12SCT” saying that your song sucks you need to keep in mind that among the many possibilities that motivated that anonymous person to write that comment, is that he didn’t even listen to your song. He just gets a thrill from telling people they suck.

And yes, sometimes I’ve given weight to these idiots myself, but thankfully I’ve learnt the lesson: That you should never take lessons from those who want to harm you.

Positive vs negative criticism

Positive criticism is basically one that involves praise for your music, and negative criticism, one that points out what lacks in it, its inaccuracies, or, if it’s the case, its mediocrity.

Needless to say, all of us prefer to receive positive criticism for our music, but this doesn’t mean we should take it more, (or less) seriously than negative criticism. What matters is whether it’s constructive not whether it’s positive or negative.

If your friend keeps telling you the melody is not catchy, and you trust he only has good intentions, maybe the melody really is not catchy.

Or maybe it is. Or else, it is true that the melody isn’t really catchy but you didn’t intend to have a catchy melody in that song in the first place. You just wanted to capture a particular feeling that doesn’t involve any really catchy melody in it.

Because as you’ll see, while destructive criticism should always be ignored, it doesn’t mean constructive criticism, whether positive or negative, is always correct or ideal.

Now that we’ve ruled out destructive criticism, in the next two distinctions, I will be referring to constructive criticism only, whether positive or negative. We don’t need to dissect destructive criticism further, since that kind of criticism should be discarded in the first place.

Informed vs misinformed criticism

Imagine trying to get feedback about a Heavy Metal song from someone who only listens to Classical music.

He’s probably not going to like it in the first place. And since his ear is not trained to listen to Heavy Metal music, let alone distinguish between good and bad Heavy Metal songs, he can never give you an opinion that has any value.

Now, imagine giving that song to a Heavy Metal fan to listen to. And, as he’s into a few seconds of the song, his eyes brighten up, and you can see you really hit him with it.

Should you take his reaction and opinion seriously?

Of course you should, he’s a fan. If he liked it so much it’s quite likely other Metal fans are going to like it.

Yet, you wouldn’t value his criticism of your music as much as that of a professional Heavy Metal musician who releases albums and tours.

You know that this guy can love your song but also point out small nuances you need to work on, as well as give you new ideas so that you can make it even better.

Or, while you feel certain your song is great, and the Heavy Metal fans are telling you it’s great, he may not like it.

Because there’s another distinction to be made.

Objective vs subjective criticism

It is astonishing how many great bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, were hated by the music critics. At first, at least.

These were the people who should have been the most informed of all, yet, even the best of them, got it wrong over and over again.

Why? Because in the end beauty is in the eye of the beholder. These critics were focused on what they liked themselves rather than what is a good song that will excite the masses, irrespective of whether it had excited them personally or not.

If even professional critics can fail at it, getting objective criticism isn’t easy. And if the critic is a friend, there is an added bias: He’s biased in favor of you. And if she’s your girlfriend or your mum, it’s even worse.

When I want objective criticism about my music, I do ask friends. After all, who’s going to be more constructive then your own friends?

However, after I make sure the person I’m showing my music to is informed enough to give me a valuable opinion, I also make it clear to that person that I’m not expecting flattery – except when deserved.

I also ask for the criticism to be specific, and usually get feedback like this:

In the first half of the solo you ramble too much on the same notes without any sense of melody. How about reconsidering your phrasing and add some longer notes with vibrato?

I know you were probably trying to create a contrast with the really melodic climax in the second half, but man, it gets you to sleep until that point

With a piece of advice like this, I’ve got something to chew on. I will listen to the solo again with a new focus in mind “am I rambling too much in the first half of the solo? If yes, how can I make it more melodic?”

Your mindset

It is very important to react to any form of criticism of your music with a positive and empowering mindset.

Choosing which criticism you’ll give weight to, and how much, is only the first step. The next step is to actually use that criticism, without any fear that it will harm your ego, or convince you that you can’t become a successful guitar player, or songwriter.

Because sometimes it happens. You create a piece of music you think is amazing, yet when you play it to others, you just get that look.

Or else, you’ll get some real, constructive, but negative criticism.

And it’s in these instances that your mindset starts to matter. Will you take that criticism, embrace it, and grow? Or will you let it eat you inside and discourage you from what you’re doing?

A couple of years ago a guitar player from a more established band than the one I was playing with, came to listen to us in our rehearsal space.

We played him a few songs, and were eager for his criticism. And we hoped he liked us, of course.

Which he did.

However, he had some advice for me and said, “The songs are great and they would sound great, but first you need to stop sounding like a clock that’s always one second late

I could have protested. “It’s just a rehearsal”, “It’s frigging fast, you know…”

But I knew this was advice worth pondering on, which is what I did.

Thankfully. Because thinking about that advice led to two important discoveries that dramatically changed my progress in music.

I realized that:

1. I was very tense in my playing. Not because I was playing in front a more established musician than myself, (the guy was an old friend so I wasn’t particularly nervous), but because that’s what I did all the time I wasn’t in the comfort zone of practicing on my own.

That when I was playing with fallible humans not a drum machine, when I couldn’t stop and start the solo all over again 8 times in a row without bothering anyone, playing music started to feel less like expressing myself and more like trying to catch a train.

Hence the one second late. When the beat of the drum stops being a signal, and becomes and order, a deadline you have to reach or else you will ruin it for everyone else, you get in a tense state, and at times you do miss a deadline.

And when you do miss a deadline (hit the intended note slightly late), instead of comfortably getting back on track (and play on time) you get wound up as you try to reach the next deadline, but you’re a little late again, and you spend the entire solo trying to catch up.

Thanks to that criticism, I realized that not only was I being “one second late”, but that I had an issue with tension – a very common, and serious issue among guitar players – that I needed to deal with.

That before I play or jam with others, I needed to constantly remind myself to keep relaxed and let the music flow, rather than try to achieve perfection and getting all wound up in the process.

2. I was never recording myself, whether I was playing with my band or practicing guitar by myself.

That I had never identified this “one second late” problem because I was only hearing the music while I was “catching the train”, not while sitting back later on and listening objectively to it.

From then on I started recording some of my practice and rehearsals, which led to further discoveries, and further growth.

All of this, was the result of a single piece of constructive, informed and objective advice.

The ultimate critic

In the end, the critic that has to take the final decisions, such as whether you will release a song, or whether you need to improve in some area of practice, is yourself.

It is thus important that you become a good critic yourself, one that is:

1. Constructive

This should be a no brainer. Who would want to harm himself?

Strangely enough, people do harm themselves with destructive forms of thinking, an issue I deal with in an article on beating songwriter’s block.

2. Positive or negative

You should neither shy away from patting yourself in the back when you create good music, nor fear admitting that the result of a great idea you had didn’t turn out as expected, or else that there are still things that need to be improved.

3. Informed vs misinformed

You may not be a professional musician yet, but if you’re writing songs, creating solos or improvising, music, at least that from your favorite genres, is a subject you know pretty well.

Learning music should be a lifelong endeavor but if you’re already creating it is you can fairly say you’re informed enough to give a good criticism of it.

The next distinction is more likely to be problematic.

4. Objective vs subjective

Being objective with your own music is hard since while you were conceiving it and creating it there were emotions involved.

They may have been positive emotions, you felt really good and had high hopes for the song, or negative ones such as doubt and self-judgement.

The emotions that you felt while writing the song, make it harder to look objectively at it. But you should at least try and get as close to it as possible and ask yourself some specific questions such as:

  • If you intended to create a catchy melody, is it something you feel like you want to keep singing in your head, without having to do any effort to do so?
  • Is every note in tune and on time?
  • Does the structure of the song make sense? Does each part of the song flow seamlessly into the next or do they seem to be artificially joined together?
  • Would the song do with an added instrument or backing vocals?

The more specific your questions are, the more likely that you’ll give yourself an objective answer.

Summary:

  • Ignore destructive criticism completely.
  • Positive and negative criticism of your music are equally important.
  • The more informed the person criticizing your music, the more you should give weight to his opinion.
  • Both objective and subjective opinions should be given weight, however, with subjective opinions you need to keep in mind that there will be people who will not like your music. And it’s Ok, since it’s a matter of taste.
  • Accept all forms of criticism with a positive mindset
  • Learn to become your ideal, own, critic.


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