Constructive criticism is an integral part of songwriting - but there's constructive criticism and then there's just "pulling you down". How do you tell the difference? And where do you get your best constructive criticism from?
A writer and artist from New York, writes:
"Pulling you down" is when someone makes comments without offering any help or hope for your efforts. Constructive criticism is a critique with suggestions for improvement. For some people, even constructive criticism is hard to take. It's really tough to put something that means a lot to you out on display for others to pick apart. But an english teacher of mine once said "You can not fall in love with your words" which meant that you shouldn't be so "in love" with your work that you are not willing to be flexible. 'Cause great work comes from being flexible and learning to accept others' opinions without taking it too personally. For me, one way that is great to get constructive criticism without any pressure, is to play songs for friends and see which ones they ask to hear over and over again.
A Songwriter in Ontario Canada, writes:
Constructive criticism... Hmmmm, let me see... No, I think I'll start with getting "pulled down" first, because that's what usually happens to me whenever I'm in the process of writing or recording new stuff... (I live in an apartment) "Give up that god-awful racket!" or "Quit playing that crappy song!" - Is the type of feedback I get around the house when I'm trying to work. It's hard enough to get the time to be constructive, let alone all of the distractions in between. You can expect that sort of stuff if you're trying to work in the wrong environment, like HOME. Everyone around the house is used to your singing the same line over and over until you get it right - and it can drive them nuts. What you have to remember here is that family and/or room mates will not hesitate to give you a hard time about what you're doing, especially if you're annoying the hell out of them. This will always result in negative feedback/criticism. It is usually not directed at your song, it's directed at you personally. (That's another story) Point being: find a place where you can work privately, so you can't be interrupted and "pulled down" all the time. If people keep telling you your songs are crap, soon enough you might just start to believe it. As for constructive criticism, I get my best constructive criticism from OTHER SONGWRITERS AND MUSICIAN FRIENDS because they are a little more in tune with what I am trying to accomplish. These people may or may not be biased, but at least you get quality input that you can use to enhance your songs.
A songwriter from LA, writes:
If you go into it unprepared, then to you the songwriter, there is no difference between constructive criticism and pulling you down. I learned my lesson a long time ago about not being more discriminating about who I let weigh in on my music. You have to be very, very vigilant about making sure the person to whom you're submitting your music is not a bitter, mean person whose own career has frustrated them to the point that they perceive their position in life as one who will react and judge from a place of jealousy. I made that mistake twice and it affected me to the degree that I put my guitar down, both times, for over a year and refused to write or sing. I had written a song that was structured just like 10k Maniac's "These Are Days", and I had a very well known songwriter tell me that I can't write a song in that fashion. When I told her that Merchant wrote "These Are Days" in the same structure, she told me that because Merchant was already established, it was ok that she did, but not ok that I did... that's plain old bullshit! I have now adopted the mindset of never submitting my materials for criticism--the audience's reaction is my only concern, not a subjective, bitter critic.
A Performing Songwriter from Austin, Texas, writes:
I find the best criticisms contain specifics. I hear folks say things like 'your stress pattern in verse 2 line 2 deviates from V1L2... and often I hear folks tell me to 'show' not 'tell' in my lyric... to draw pictures rather than tell a single story. That kind of input I can make good use of... the critic who simply shrugs or says "I don't like XYZ" doesn't really help me. As to 'putting you down'... I think there certainly are folks who will do that, and I've seen some of them be particularly harsh... but the thing to remember in these situations is they only have the power you yourself give them. If you are looking for approval or acceptance in a critique, you are there for the wrong reason. If you are trying to make your song, lyric or performance better, a critique can help. I personally refuse to take criticism of my work personal. It's not about ME... it's about the song. At the same time, if I observe someone being critical of folks simply to put them down, I look for other folks to associate with in the future. This thing we do is hard enough without having to deal with knuckleheads.
A lil bit country, lil bit metal, writes:
It depends on their attitude, the way they say it. If they say "Well this chorus absolutely sucks" without anything further, I consider that "pulling you down." But if they say something like "Well the chorus isn't too good, but maybe if you try this instead..." That is constructive criticism. They're giving their opinion of what they hear and then giving an idea to follow through with to help make it better rather than leaving you feeling dejected and not knowing how to fix the problem. I get the best constructive criticism from my friends because they aren't the kind to kiss up, they tell you what they think when it comes to music without being too harsh, but still being honest. Otherwise, finding other people that don't know you that, like the style of music and having them take a listen and asking them what they like or don't like can be useful.
A songwriter from KY, writes:
I have been writing for years and have found the best criticism comes from the way people listen to my songs. If they are very quiet, looking down, or looking at me, I know I have caught their attention. Not every song you write is going to touch everyone the same way. The song you think is your best song, may only be your best song to you because it is so personal to you. Try writing songs that don't have any real personal meaning to you. It takes a lot of effort to put yourself in someone else's shoes, but it's worth the effort. Every song should have a "catch line". This is the line that makes people stop and say, "I hear that" That doesn't mean the catch line is your title, it's just part of the song that makes the song complete. Never ask spouses, or close family members what they think of your songs. You won't get an unbiased opinion. The best way to find out if you have a good song, is to let other song writers look at them, and let strangers hear them. Look for responses, and when someone says, "sing that song again", you have a good song.
A Drummer/Guitarist/Philosopher from Leicester, England, writes:
If your critic is making generalisations; 'that's useless' or 'i don't like that', you're definitely not getting anything constructive at all. You need to ask them specifically what it is that they don't like. How you decide what to do with any criticism or praise you get on a composition depends on the reason for writing the piece in the first place. If you are writing for your own enjoyment, then surely no criticism you get matters. If you are writing the song for any other reason, input from other people is invaluable. One example of this is writing a song for a performance. In this case, the obvious objective is to make your audience happy, ie: to have a 'good' gig. In this situation, surely, the best constructive criticism you could get is from someone who is a part of this potential audience. One thing you have to remember is that it's impossible to write a song that everybody will like. You have to target a certain audience, else any criticism you get, however constructive (should you decide to listen at all) will be at odds to each other. It gets harder when you're writing music but you don't know how to 'categorise' yourself. I hate having to categorise the music I play, but you have to if you want to make any sense of advice you get. Otherwise, it's just a case of trusting yourself. Basically, when you play a song to someone, they are acting on preconceived ideas of their own to provide a reaction to it. Therefore, I tend to trust the values of people whose background and tastes I already know, but still lean more to my 'style' of playing.
A Welsh self-unaware over-analytical teenager struggling to figure it all out, writes:
Constructive criticism is, for me, telling me not only why the didn't like the song, but what about it they didn't like and how I could make it better. I get the ebst constructive criticism from e-mail groups of songwriters. On the other hand, songwriters tend to overanalyse songs and many like songs they read to be written to a specific formula, which may work, but annoys me. So then I ask my friends what the liked, didn't like, and how I could make it better. They may be bias, but at least they're not snobbish.
A hopeful singer, songwriter from Halifax, Canada, writes:
For a while I couldn't tell the difference between constructive criticism and "pulling one down", because I thought people were just being mean to me when they gave me criticism. But now I see those people were using constructive criticism, because they told me first what they liked, then told me what was wrong with whatever I did, and WHY. They gave me ideas of how to improve and what not to do next time. Those people were clear, not vague. They were honest, not cold. I haven't had those pulling me down about what songs I wrote, but I heard when someone didn't like a song. They might say "that song sucks and so does that singer!" That, I would call pulling one down. Why does the singer suck? Why does the song suck? No advice, no nothing. Sometimes a person just wants to make a writer feel bad, making comparisons to another song in a way that makes the writer feel stupid. I find myself getting the best advice from listeners one-on-one. They don't have to be songwriters or singers. They don't even have to like the genre that I play, as long as they tell me what works and what doesn't for them.
A singer/song writer from New York, writes:
Critique is when you hear positive and negative comments, and you are given pointers of how to improve. Critisism is when you are being ridiculed or told your music will not go anywhere. My best critique comes from my 5 year old brother. If my songs can't hold his attention for 3 or so minutes then I know I should "liven" them up a bit.
A songwriter who's been criticized numerous times, from Sarnia, ON Canada, writes:
Constructive criticism is when the person is willing to tell you how you can improve your songs, basically. "Pulling you down" is when the person is making a joke out of it, saying everything that is wrong with your songs, and trying to make themselves feel better. To get the best constructive criticism, turn to other songwriters who are on good terms with you (if you have people who aren't) and also try joining a songwriting club where songwriters like you can join and help each other online. I recently had my work professionally criticised, and at first I thought, ow, this hurts, its my soul I put into this. But then I thought, hey, these people know the biz and can get me out there. So don't take it personally, and don't do everything they say. Go with what you like.
A singer, songwriter from new york city, 18 yrs old, writes:
Placing a person in a position that they are not capable to understand can be nerve racking and hurt ones' self esteem. Being a singer/songwriter, I can't help but place myself in front of an ever judging crowd. I tend to listen to only those who would know the positions I was in as I wrote that piece. If the person criticising your work also understands what it means to you, I find that the criticism actually pertains to the work and not bringing you down. I always listen to my ex girlfriends. They are the people who put up with my crap and to whom I spoke intimately about my life. Parents hardly ever understand as do even your closest of friends. I think of it this way. "If you have seen me naked and haven't judged me badly, then it's cool for you to see my songs." No matter how bad it may sound, a person who you have been intimate with will not try to bring you down. Meaning that the criticism they give is pure and honest.
A 'serious amateur' singer-songwriter from Oakland, writes:
Weighing feedback is a delicate process, moreso because it inevitably involves your ego. First, I think it's possible to get something useful from virtually all feedback. My initial filter is 'how knowledgable is this person about music/songwriting/my genre', and weigh the feedback against that. There's also a secondary filter of 'how does this feedback compare to what I believe about my song?' and, of course, this is a tricky one: it's necessary to first try and separate your ego or sense of ownership from your 'impartial' judgment; still, there are times when it's legitimate to disregard feedback if it's seriously out of whack with your judgment and there's no supporting evidence. The best feedback comes from my musical mentor/collaborator, John Lumsdaine, because he knows where I'm coming from musically (traditions and influences) as well as personally - he can see what I'm trying to do and let me know how close I'm coming.
A jazz pianist from the GTA (Toronto, Canada), writes:
Constructive criticism deals with specific elements of the music -- tempo, structure, form, dynamics, groove, melody, harmony, etc. If they mention something or anything valid and back it up, it's constructive. It's another set of (hopefully) unbiased ears listening to your music. If they just go through a list of stuff and say "I don't like this, this, or that," then it's useless. I get my best constructive criticism from my piano teacher and my jazz band director. They're both very knowledgeable in music and I respect their opinions.
A songwriter from Hollywood California, writes:
I could not get constructive criticism from anyone. It seems either people don't have anything to say or I think that maybe they don't want to hurt your feelings. So what I did was I created a web site called Artistjam.com and I made it so people could put their songs on the web site to get votes and get criticism. I also started the Los Angeles Songwriters Circle to get other songwriters togethor. It seems like a lot of work and it is but it is making me get serious about my songwriting and I am paying more attention to it. I hope through these things that I create that it helps me to become a great songwriter and I hope to meet people that share the same dreams and goals. You can visit the web site at http://www.artistjam.com upload your song or lyric and I will give it criticism if that is what will help you. I also go to jpfolks.com. They have a grreat message board for lyrics. and the Muse's Muse as you all know is the best resource for songwriters on the net. Thanks Jodi.
Editor's Note: Aw shucks. Thanks, Paul. ;-)
A Songwriter from New Orleans area, writes:
Good criticism is backed with valid reasoning for the critic's line of thinking that makes sense, addresses issues with the song rather than the writer and gives valid suggestions or alternative ways to go. Poor criticisim is vague, too general or attacks the writer. The best constructive criticism I've had comes from seasoned writers on message boards like Just Plain Folks and Songwriting.Org. After a while you get to know those who can help with a song versus those who try to find fault to feed their egos.
Dark Overlord of the Universe, just trying to make ends meet, writes:
The difference is actually fairly easy to spot: it's the difference between, "Hey, Dave, that song really sucks" and "Hey, Dave, that song really sucks and here's why." Now, this doesn't mean that a song needs to work for everyone. I certainly have friends who I trust with my heart and soul who just plain don't like certain of my songs (and they'll just say, "I don't like it much," which is fine. *I* don't even like all of my songs). But good constructive criticism will say, "You know, that phrase is really awkward" or "I don't think the music works very well there" or "Hmm...how about you try saying it this way instead." As far as where it comes from, well...the best sources are the people you trust to be honest with you. If I'm singing with the community of friends I'm part of, then I hope and expect they'll tell me if they don't like something and why. Nobody should ever be afraid of an honest opinion.
A Songwriter from Stevston in the Steve Earle mold..[he wished LOL!], writes:
Having sat on both sides of "Demo Critiques" [on the panel and in the crowd] I suppose my biggest beef is panelists who are less than honest. On a number of occasions I've heard a ghastly song be treated with kid gloves [we don't want to upset the writer] and then a great song elicit the same kind of responses. I think this kind of thing does a great disservice to the writer of the better song.When it is glaringly obvious that your song is better than the last track heard and the panel is saying the same things it's a bit disheartning. As a panelist I try not to be cruel when dealing with an...um...less than great song and do my level best to point out to the writer that they have some way to go but not to give up. As an audience member I want to hear an honest apprasal of my work. I haven't run across too many panalists who just tear you down, most want avoid that kind of thing. You can tell true construtive criticism when you feel like the comments stung abit but you find you agree with them. I find a live audience is the best place to get critiqued, hey if they ain't listening you got work to do!
Just stone's throw from Prince's house, writes:
Constructive Critiques are gentle, thoughtful, suggestions that are carefully phrased to encourage the writer to a more complete understanding of the best way to do things. Put-downs flow from impatience, fear, egotism, competition, lack of concern, and even anger. Put downs are strongly stated, definitive statements that attempt to make the critic look smart at the expense of the writer. Constructive critiques must come from someone either more knowledgable than yourself or more innocent. Friends and spouses are not reliable. Neither are A&R people because they usually operating on some formula or theory. All the A&R peole rejected Creed and many other great acts. I would attempt a "3rd person street survey", where you interview strangers who represent your audience, but don't tell them its your song, so they're not afraid to respond negatively.
A songwriter who writes vocal melodies and lyrics for a band in SoCal, writes:
People who "pull you down" have nothing good to say. You ask them how they liked the song and they say "it sucks" and then they can't exactly pinpoint why it sucks and don't tell you what you can do to make it better. Constuctive criticism usually comes from peers, people who play music or listen to music heavily. With that, you ask them how they liked your song and they say "Wow, the vocal line sounded great all the way up to your transition. After that you kept singing in a similar way as the first part of the song. I don't feel that your tone and note choice suited the angry feel to the music behind you." That's an example of good criticism, but some people can't take any criticism without being defensive. I admit I sometimes get put off when someone criticizes a song I worked hard to perfect. different ears hear different things so one should really listen to what their peers have to say, especially if they all point out the same problems. Remember also that advice should always be taken with a grain of salt.
A Filker (think "science fiction folk music) and scientist from Oregon, writes:
I don't get many negative comments, but when I do, I remind myself that personal taste has a lot to do with whether people like a song or not. Songs I can't stand have become major hits; somebody must have liked them. More often I get "constructive observations" like "your songs tend to be vignettes of a moment, or a feeling; they rarely tell a story." Which wasn't a criticism on the part of the speaker, but gave me something to think about, and try out, for my growth as a lyricist. When someone says something that hurts (which does happen sometimes) I try to put it away for a while, and think about it later, when it doesn't hurt as much. Sometimes the comment is right, and points out a way for me to improve a song, or something for me to work on the next time I write a song. For criticism--well, I perform my work at science fiction conventions, and I hope people feel free to talk to me about it afterwards. I often run a new song past the other half of my band, to see what she thinks--if she doesn't like it, I usually put it away. I also perform it for anyone else involved in it--the person it was written for, for instance, or people who were present at an incident it was written about. And I often run a new song past my fiancee--he won't say anything hurtful, but he won't say he likes something he doesn't. When his face lights up I know I've got a winner.
A songwriter in Nashville, writes:
The best way to tell the difference is attitude. You CAN give "positive" criticism. If the critique is based on what's great and how to make it better, rather than what's awful, I'm much more inclined to listen. If there's nothing that they like about a tune, then their opinion doesn't really matter. I try to find people who see the potential in what I do, rather than try and change what I do to fit their personal tastes. And the best of criticism helps you stand on your own as a writer. NOT to massage the critics ego.
Richard M. Smith
A songwriter from Liverpool, writes:
Normally I try and find constructive criticism of my songs from 2 or 3 sources.
a) My wife will say whether I'm being real or not (a partner will know from the jump as to whether you're being honest in the music or not.)
b) A close musical friend will be a measure as to how `good` it is (an old friend of mine and I grew up listening to the Beatles, The Stones and Dylan. He might dislike a certain artist I'm into, but I know that he knows a good tune when he hears one)
c) A more distant aquaintance who either hasn't heard of Dylan or doesn't like him. (If I can `sell` the tune to a Pop-Kid then everyone else in between should find some merit in there)
A young (12) talented singer/songwriter to be from NY, writes:
The difference between constructive criticism and "pulling you down" is that from constructive criticism you can take the person's comments and become a better singer from it. When it's just "pulling you down" you can only wonder what's so wrong about your music. I get my best critique from my 5 year old brother. I'll sing one of my songs and if the melody and beat doesn't catch him right away he'll get bored. For the lyrics I usually sing for my older brother. He's 14 and most of my songs are on subjects that he can relate to.
A vocalist/guitarist/songwriter for The Bliss Project, writes:
Constructive criticism is usually combined with suggestions, so as to steer one in the right direction when they veer off the path.Though the critic may be passionate about his view, if he is constructive he knows when to relax emotion and strive for logic.The"pulling you down" type critiques never have this quality.They are usually ego/emotionally driven, and a waste of time to all involved. I find my best criticism comes from trusted friends or associates whom may not be directly affected by my work, although my bandmates seem to do a great job informing me of how I could polish up, musically. It's all about trust and keeping ego's in check.
A songwriter from Northeast Ohio, USA who didn't tell me anything about himself so now I get to make up stories about him :-) , writes:
The difference between the two is this:
A constructive critic does just that - constructs something. In creative construction it IS necessary to break up old things or turn them from what they are into something more valuable- but construction also identifies that which is good, and does not need to be altered to benefit the whole. If the critic cannot recognize the good and the bad of what I've done, then I say they are too negative to help me.
I don't think it's all that difficult to do this properly but it seems many people I've run across do not balance both. I hope to find good c. criticism at the listserv on writingsongs, but I haven't got much response to my submissions. Seems like it's picked up quite a bit these days.
Baby ray Satterwhite
A lyricist & Writer from Illinois, writes:
To accept "constructive" criticism you must be open minded. Your source must also be objective. Generic observations are the key! It has a good beat, the lyrics don't fit the tempo etc; If someone gets specific, like, "why do you think a song like that has a chance", chances are they are either jealous or they really don't want you to pursue your dream. The bottom line for me is that I must believe when everyone else doesn't. The trap is a failure to maintain your own objectivity with respect to the marketability of a tune. They don't cal it the "Music Business" for nothing. Now after all of this, I'm still unpublished, so what the hell do I know.