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The GRE in Music

GRE words pop up in surprising contexts. When I mention that GRE words pop up in movie reviews, many don’t believe me, thinking the realm of Roger Ebert is one of thumbs up and down. Ebert himself was an eloquent thoughtful writer who employed a correspondingly developed sense of vocabulary. A.O. Scott, the New York Times critic, sometimes reads like a Text Completion.

But I’m not here to encourage you to read movie reviews (which I’ve done in the past), but to read another kind of review, one about a topic that is perhaps more dear to you: music.


Photo by Luke Addison

And even if you aren’t into music, reading GRE words in a context you might not be that interested in or familiar with, will better prepare you for test day, when you will be bombarded by a spate of unfamiliar topics.

Like the movie review, the music review can be full of sophisticated sentences leavened with GRE-level words. Of course, that doesn’t capture all music reviews, so I’ve pulled together some sources that write just these types of music reviews.

GRE Vocabulary in Music Reviews

1. Tiny Mix Tapes

Here is a snippet from a review of Grouper’s last album. Grouper, for those who don’t know, falls under the ambient drone genre (apparently, there is such a thing).

Because “What has been done / Can never be undone,” we’re left not with the ambiguous tumult of a storm, but a reminder of the ruinous cycle of our lives, the repeating pattern of our mistakes and reliefs, a preservation of decay, sustained by the tiny human fault line we draw around the noise and the clearings we create within that line. With Ruins, Harris opens up a portal to one of those clearings, and I don’t feel quite as bombarded affectively and aesthetically (by problems, timelines, insecurities, noise, and other people) when I hear its call and disappear there.

Perhaps not an explosion of GRE words, but definitely dense prose that you may have to re-read a couple of times. And that’s okay: your brain is trying to make sense of it.

2. The Line of Best Fit

Not all reviews have to be that abstract. Another great place for sophisticated music reviews that doesn’t lay it on as thickly is The Line of Best Fit. To juxtapose the two reviews, I’ve also picked a review of the same album, Grouper’s Ruins.

The ambient hiss of Harris’ four-track envelops these songs, the background noises serendipitously captured add intriguing embellishments. Cicadas can be clearly heard on several tracks, and “Holofernes” and “Holding” seem to have been recorded during one of those glorious southern-European rainstorms, providing a subtle and natural percussion all of its own. At the very end of “Labyrinth” the high-pitched electronic beep of a microwave oven is sounded. That Harris chose not to re-record the track or to remove the noise digitally demonstrates clearly the intention of this record: to faithfully capture a time or her life, as the cliché goes, “warts-and-all”.


Photo by Vancouver Film School

3. Pitchfork

Pitchfork is one of the more well-known music review publications. It’s known for more offbeat stuff than, say, Rolling Stone. And its reviews aren’t nearly as pat, and veer off into the philosophical, as this excerpt from Arca’s latest album shows.

It’s been a while since it felt like there was anything really, categorically new in popular music, or even semi-popular music. As SimonReynolds’ Retromania argued, the story of the century so far has mostly been one of collaging together the bits and pieces of earlier decades. Gradually, however, it is becoming clear that something is cresting the horizon, and while it’s too early to make out the particulars of its shape—this lumbering behemoth with the Teflon gleam and Transformer joints and image-mapping skin—it is getting closer.

This new thing is not a genre, exactly; call it a style, a sensibility, a veneer. It has to do with computers and digital sound and digital imagery. It has to do with representation and malleability, the idea that sound and image can be stretched and twisted and copied ad nauseam. It revels in digital gloss and grit, in bent tones, in smeared and frozen reverb tails. Extreme compression, schizoid pith: rap vocals broken down to monosyllables, a single “Huh” as metonym for everything that’s happened between the Sugarhill Gang and now. History reduced to a USB stick.

Interesting stuff—though that might take a couple of rereads. Still, he’s not just dropping big words in there; he’s communicating some nuanced stuff about the state of contemporary music. Much of the GRE verbal is about context, and by that I mean the general thought the Text Completion of Sentence Equivalence question is trying to communicate.


Photo by Carlos Gracia


Of course, the sites above don’t capture all types of music, including one of my favorite genres: classical. Associated with pretentiousness—whether that stereotype is true or not, I’ll leave up to you—classical music reviews tend to eschew words like “shining” or “radiant” when gleaming fancy pants words like “refulgent” or “resplendent” also do the trick.

Here is a quick snippet from the BBC Music Magazine, which I recommend for those who want their GRE vocab laid on thick.

His Chopin Nocturne is cool and pure, the G minor Ballade refulgent with drama (though there’s a moment of sound distortion in the coda, unfortunately); and the Andante spianato and grande polonaise has a mischievous flair that culminates in an unscheduled treble whoosh in the final bars.


A Final Note:

To make the experience of reading music reviews even more exciting, listen to the album you are reading about. Only a few years back that would have been a little quixotic. But these days, has even most of the new releases available—free—for your consumption. Not sure how legal it is to upload music, so if you demur based on ethical considerations, that’s totally understandable. Listening is, of course, absolutely legal.


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