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Words and Music: Why Liner Notes Matter

Words and Music: Why Liner Notes Matter
Jakob Baekgaard By

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The inclusion of liner notes in albums is a crucial part of the ceremony of choice. Reading the notes puts you in the right frame of mind. It confirms your choice and prepares the experience of listening.
It is said that we live in The Information Age, but perhaps, it would be more correct to say that we live in the Age of Too Much Information. If there is something you are looking for, you can often find it on the Internet, but the question is whether it is quantity rather than quality. Of course, in spite of increasing commercialization and an endless pile of trash, there is also much valuable information to be found on the Internet. All About Jazz, this very website, is in fact a prime example of the idea of enlightenment where sources of knowledge connected to a certain topic (jazz) are gathered. Wikipedia is another example.

In many ways, the Internet has been a blessing for the curious music fan. It has never been easier to access and listen to music from around the world, but with all this music around comes a need for limitation, information and concentration. As a music listener, and especially as a music reviewer, you sometimes get the feeling that there is endless stream of music floating around and sometimes it becomes too much. It is quite simple. Even if all the food in the world is available to you, you can only eat a limited amount a day. The same thing with music, you need to make a choice.

The inclusion of liner notes in albums is a crucial part of the ceremony of choice. Reading the notes puts you in the right frame of mind. It confirms your choice and prepares the experience of listening. This preparation has different aspects:

1. Biography and historical context. The notes could provide a short biography of the artist, simply answering the question: Who is he or she? This makes the listening experience more personal. The musician is not just a name on the cover, but a human of flesh and blood. This is especially useful when the artist is not a familiar name. The short biography could also be a snapshot of the artist's life. Where is he/she right now? The notes could also include historical context. Is the artist a part of a specific tradition or scene?

2. Artist's reflections. Some of the most interesting notes are the ones where the writer has taken the time to interview the artist or, perhaps, the artist writes his/her own thoughts about the music. What are the stories behind the music? What is the artist trying to do aesthetically? What kind of choices were made before and during the recording process? Getting the answers to these questions allows the reader to be involved in the process of creation and be a fly on the wall.

3. Musical analysis. An analysis of the music, a so-called track-by-track analysis, forms the basis of many liner notes. Some are very technical, others very factual and others again poetical. There a many approaches and one is not necessarily more valid than the other, but it should be kept in mind that the receiver is the general listener and not a trained musicologist. Some people say that describing music is impossible, the cliché quote is that: "it is like dancing around architecture." It might be that it is difficult, but it is not a valid reason for not trying.

4. Writer's reflections. Because a musical analysis is so difficult, it often becomes a writer's perception of the music. Some writers are more successful with this approach than others, but every liner note is, in some sense, subjective and the trick of the writer is to make his/her experience of the music as clear as possible and then you can agree or not as a listener. No matter what, it is nice to have a qualified opinion of the music.

5. Enthusiasm. It might seem strange to include enthusiasm, especially considering the fact that some people think liner notes are filled with unnecessary hyperbole, purple prose and empty rhetoric. Personally, I like an enthusiastic writer, as long as the praise is genuine. To me it is worse to encounter a writer who does not seem to like the music he or she is writing about. I don't mind the writer telling me the music is good and if he or she can qualify the statement it is even better. It puts the listener in a positive frame of mind. Would you rather be told that you are going to eat "a salad" or that you're going to eat "a fresh, crispy, green salad that has grown in a little garden." I know what I prefer and which salad I would like to eat.

6. Marking the album as a work of art. Liner notes are a signal that here is a work of art that is worth your time. By now, liner notes can be found in albums associated with any genre: country, disco, rock, jazz, you name it. However, one genre where it is the norm is classical music, and it is no coincidence. Classical music is a genre that is highly aware of its status as high art.


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