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A Defence for the Use of the Word ‘Sonic’ within Music Criticism

A work colleague (who I hope won’t mind me quoting him) once expressed his intent to avoid phrases such as “sonic guitars” when reviewing music. While my hostility towards this statement was immediate, it prompted me to examine the wider relationship between music journalism and the word ‘sonic’.

His unease with the word is a common one. On more than one occasion I’ve been questioned by my use of it within my reviews, by the same people who view the word as clichéd, pretentious, overused and irrelevant. I contest this view on at least two accounts.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘sonic’ has come to be defined as ‘of or pertaining to sound’. This prompts the most compelling reason for its home within the vocabulary of the music critic: ‘sonic’ is not merely a synonym for ‘musical’. This presupposes that there is a vital difference between the two, and a counterargument for its assumed irrelevance.

An example here would perhaps be beneficial. In the context of the quote in question, the use of the word is incorrect. Although identifying as an adjective, its use within a reviewer’s discourse is not entirely descriptive. Here, it is a tautological error: the sound of guitars is a sound. Not only is this obvious, but it fails to critique the use of guitars within the work.

An example of correct usage comes from Q Magazine, who in their glowing review of Daft Punk’s 2001 work Discovery noted that “no moment … is left unfilled with an idea, a sonic joke…” and so on. Here the usage is accurate because the ‘joke’ is dependent on its basis in sound. The two words are mutually dependent on one another.

Returning to the relationship between ‘musical’ and ‘sonic’, bands such as Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine and Brian Eno make the case for this distinction. Of course, their respective works are considered music in the simplest sense, but rather importantly also focus on experimentations of sound.

Indeed, in the modern climate many acts thrive on the overlap between these two principles. However, there is an all-encompassing nature to the latter that drives writers to choose the word over the former.

As an additional note, the word has been used by such magazines as the New Musical Express, Q, and most habitually by Pitchfork – by no means a justification for its place in music criticism, only a reminder that its existence within the media is an active one. Often it helps create more sophisticated writing, commonly (and mistakenly) interpreted as pretension.

Granted, its recent appropriation by music journalists has resulted in a hyper-popularisation, however the origins of the word dictate that the word ‘sonic’ isn’t simply a cliché, but rather a necessity.

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