There’s so much music out on Newgrounds and so many opinions that I have decided to formally organize my criteria for judging music. It’s what I personally go by, and it’s up to the reviewer if they want to use this as a guide.
An Important Note: In order to properly review a piece using the following guidelines, it has to have a description of some kind, even if it’s something like “Did this for fun” or “Just messing around.” It may seem like a small thing, but the creator’s perspective directly affects the score. If there’s no description, it’s impossible to tell what the creator is trying to do in creating and releasing their piece. As a result, rather than reviewing how clearly the intent comes across in the music, the reviewer is forced to revert to their subjective opinion, which can be shallow and vary wildly depending on the reviewer.
With that out of the way, here are some of my guidelines to reviewing music:
1: Clarity Of The Creator’s Intent: As a reviewer, even if you dislike the way the piece is executed, you can still try to judge more objectively by reading the title and descriptors in relation to the sound and lyrics (if any) to get an idea of what the artist is trying to do (example: an unusual-sounding piece with the description of “Just something I made for kicks” erases any confusion that the artist may have been trying hard to do something unique and avant-garde, thus the intent is less likely to be misunderstood). In general, taking in any and all descriptive information in the submission (including but not limited to: genre, tags, title, description, informative links, the piece’s thumbnail icon artwork, if any) is helpful in determining the artist's intention. If specific parts of the submission make the intention unclear, don't be afraid to ask the artist about them; It could be a learning experience for both parties. That said, the most important and helpful descriptors to look for are the title and main description. You can usually use these two at minimum to interpret the artist's intent behind the piece you are reviewing.
**NOTE: When reviewing improvisational pieces, The focus on the initial intent behind the piece becomes a moot point. Instead, when reviewing, focus on what the descriptors (and, by extension, the artist) indicate the piece represents and judge based on how clearly that representation comes through, just like you would the initial intent behind a non-improvisational piece.
2: Piece Continuity: Once you get a good idea of the intent of the piece, you can use your judgement to interpret how effectively the intent comes across in terms of the sound. There are multiple parts to this:
A: Energy – Energy is the amount of activity going on as well as the tempo and aggression of a piece and its segments. I find the easiest way to tell the difference between how busy something sounds and how aggressive something sounds is to compare something like Duncan Lamont’s Pressure Point to something like Daft Punk’s Around The World. In this example, Pressure Point has a lot of instrumentation to keep track of packed in it but the overall rhythm isn’t hitting you in the chest like Around The World.
B: General Vibe – The general vibe is the basic “feel” of a piece at a given moment; whether fun or serious, emotional or barren, unsettling or comfortable, familiar or unusual, as well as everything in between and beyond.
C: Specific Vibe – The specific vibe is essentially elements and combinations of elements that contribute to the “general vibe” of a piece. This could be as tangible as specific instruments and the notes/chords they play, and/or sound effects. It could also be as subtle as the way a piece is mixed, including dynamics (the range of how loud or soft the piece is at a given moment). Remember that, like poetry, different sonic elements can mean different things to different people when it comes to what they are specifically associated with; I usually try to lean towards broad in my reviews rather than specific so the reviews I submit don't come across as esoteric.
Checking the continuity allows you, the reviewer, to use the perspectives of both you and the artist to make more helpful constructive criticisms.
3: Make Suggestions: This part may come more naturally to some than others. If you don’t have suggestions on what the artist could do to improve the effectiveness of their expression, don’t worry; you can still point out what you think got in the way and leave it to the artist to interpret what they should do next.
4: Keep An Open Mind: Just as an artist should be open to criticism, so should you, the reviewer, be open to disagreement. A review is, at the core of it, still based on opinion (no matter how informed), not fact.
5: Be Frank, Not Mean: Don’t be afraid to leave a low score and a poor review if you can back it up with constructive criticism using the rest of this guide. “You suck” or “I hate this” aren’t constructive statements because they don’t help the artist with their future works.
6: Allow Room For The Artist To Develop: The whole goal of this method of reviewing is to help the artist enhance their own style while letting them grow in their own way. The key here is balance between your opinion and the artist's method of expression; you can and should give pointers where applicable while also trying not to control the growth of the artist you are reviewing. If you yourself write music or you have your own ideas on what style would be most effective for communicating a message, being negative about the way the artist you are reviewing is expressing themselves isn't useful to them. Try to understand where the artist is coming from in their work when reviewing.
7: Consider The Subject Matter: Out of courtesy, when trying to review works that are especially personal and/or show a lot of vulnerability, it's generally a good idea to mind your wording more carefully in your review and/or hide your score, depending on the circumstance. For example, if someone wrote a serious piece based around their own experience of grieving loss for a loved one, instrumental or not, It's potentially insulting to give that specific piece a rating and review, even a well crafted one. Here are some suggestions for dealing with such a situation:
A: Ask The Artist Beforehand – If you are unsure if the artist is looking for feedback on a personal piece, you can ask the artist, preferably in a private setting (via PM or some form of non-public messaging), if they would like feedback. If they say yes, feel free to proceed with the review.
B: Leave A “Lite" Review First – In the event that you cannot get in touch with the artist but you still want to give them some kind of harmless and constructive feedback, you can give a "lite" review; one that focuses more on interpreting the vibe from the piece and how that came across to you without negative judgement, rather than standard constructive criticism. In this case, I personally like to leave a disclaimer at the beginning of my review explaining the situation, hide my score, and offer the artist the opportunity to discuss a more full-fledged review privately.
C: Use Your Judgement – Do your best to read the situation and act accordingly. Remember that in this type of circumstance it may be better to just skip the rate & review process entirely, out of respect, depending on the context.
I hope artists and reviewers who read this find it helpful. Feel free to comment with a suggestion if you have one. :)