Thursday, February 07, 2013

The top 10 music books

From the very accessible to the arcane, the composer-presenter-author ventures into the minefield of music book criticism

Bach score
Notes on music ... A handwritten composition by Johann Sebastian Bach being displayed in Weimar, Germany. Photograph: Martin Schutt/EPA

Music is both a universal joy (it's a cliché because it's true) and a seething map of tribal frontiers across which we stray at our peril. Virtually any paragraph written about its theory, its history, its analysis, its ethics or its science will be met with a hailstorm of contradiction and outrage, so I am nervous suggesting any books about music since such a list would undoubtedly infuriate as much as intrigue.
The music itself can be enough, without comment, of course. But how boring life would be without the debate. The 10 books I've chosen here are simply ones that I have enjoyed reading about the subject I adore; they do not cover the subject comprehensively or even fairly, they are just ways of looking through the kaleidoscope at different angles.
Mostly, these authors come at it from the perspective of preferring one type of music over another: yes, they are as opinionated and tribal as all of us fellow listeners. So explore and enjoy.
Protective armour and helmet not included.

1. Music: A very short introduction by Nicholas Cook [OUP 1998]

I am not sure how the deft Prof Cook manages to squeeze so much intelligence, cultural reference and perspective into so short a book. It is the Tardis of musical analysis. No sooner have you started it than it seems to be drawing to its conclusion but in between page 1 and 160 you eyes and ears are opened. If you only read one book on western music (apart from mine!) this is it.

2. The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein [OUP 1976]

Bernstein is one of the 20th century's most influential musical figures and his groundbreaking network television talks on music in the USA during the 60s are the inspiration for my own forays into TV musicology: no one would make them like that now, least of all in America – one man standing lecturing at a camera with an orchestra and piano behind him his only tools for an hour at a time in primetime. Gimmick-free musical analysis it was but boy, was he a fabulous communicator, with vigorous, often controversial views that he could back up with example and chutzpah. The programmes have long since disappeared but these transcriptions of his Harvard lectures, whilst aimed at music students rather than the general public, are the next best thing. Expensive, rare and gripping.

3. This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin [Atlantic Books 2007]

Levitin combines his parallel careers in music and science into this unputdownable examination of what actually happens to us when we experience music as listeners, performers or composers. The publication and popularity of this book represents the moment when the previously-held notion that music (singing, specifically) was a by-product of language, peddled for half-a-century by scientists and philologists with little or no knowledge of music, was well and truly disposed of. By the end of this book, you are 100% clear that it's the other way around.

4. Roots of the Classical by Peter Van der Merwe [OUP 2004]
This book is not for the faint-hearted nor anyone who cannot read music, since it is through many examples that Van der Merwe often elucidates his brave and enlightening theories on classical music's debt to non-classical forms and idioms. I am sure there are many hardcore classical enthusiasts who would be alarmed by some of his conclusions: his scholarship is doubly welcome for that and it forms a brain-expanding companion to his earlier …

5. Origins of the Popular Style by Peter Van der Merwe [OUP 1989]

… where he shows hundreds if not thousands of examples of the way 20th-century popular music forms owe their origins to earlier classical and European folk forms. Another, different group of self-appointed music "experts" will be equally enraged by this book, people who spit out the words "relativism" as if they are going to choke to death at the very thought. They should therefore be compelled to read this dazzling account of the origin of musical species.

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