Fall 2011

Greg Sandow


Google Voice phone number (finds me almost anywhere): 646 484-8163

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see the class schedule and assignments

Course outline:

This course doesn’t teach you to be a music critic, though you’ll write a few reviews, just to see what it’s like. (You’ll be graded on your ideas, not on your writing ability.) Nor is this a history of music criticism. Instead, we’ll look at what criticism is, and what critics do, discussing these things from a musician’s point of view. What qualifies someone to be a critic? How should musicians deal with critics? What do critics think about?

We’ll read my favorite classical music critics, George Bernard Shaw (yes, the great playwright), who wrote in London in the 1890s, and Virgil Thomson (the composer), who wrote in New York in the 1940s and ‘50s. Compared to most of what we read from critics today, they’re strikingly strong, and direct — and knowledgeable. (Or maybe not! Some of my students haven’t liked Thomson at all.)

Finally, we’ll read some rock critics, and a jazz critic. They’re very different from classical music critics. They tend to talk about what music means — who listens to it, and what these listeners get from their listening. Should classical critics do the same?

But lying behind all this is one big subject, which we’ll deal with throughout the course. How should anyone—you, me, anyone at all—talk about music? Describing music in words isn’t easy, but it can be done, and in this course we’ll work on getting better at doing it. Each week, we’ll listen to music in class, and try to find words to describe what we hear.

Assignments (more details on a separate handout):

·       Readings, as described above.

·       Current music reviews. Every day, I’d like you to read the music reviews—classical, pop, jazz, world music, whatever—in the New York Times. You might also read my wife Anne Midgette’s reviews in the Washington Post, where she’s chief classical critic. Each week, one of you will choose one of these reviews, print out copies for everyone, and then bring it to class and discuss it. (And yes, you’re free to say anything you want about Anne’s work.)

·       Two short papers, and a take-home exam. Please e-mail these assignments to me at

How you’re graded:

The most important part of this course is class discussionyour reaction to the reading assignments and to the reviews you read in the Times, along with your ways of describing the music we hear. So a large part of your grade will be based on class participation.

In your short papers, you’ll take the role of a critic, and find out what that’s like. A smaller part of your grade will be based on these assignments. Again, I’ll care more about the ideas you express than about your writing ability.

Because class discussion is so important, there’s no point in taking this course if you can’t come to class regularly. If you miss more than three classes, your grade will be affected. If you need to be absent for professional reasons, I might want to assign you extra work.