The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization by Howard Goodall

When you encounter a history of music, it tends to go from composer to composer, talks about what changed and why, what compositions made the change in question, what the audience reaction was, and so on.  Perhaps you walk away maybe a little more prepared for a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit.  But did you actually learn anything?  Depends on the author, I suppose.

Howard Goodall is an award-winning English composer and presenter, so it can be assumed he knows something about the subject he writes on here.  If you watch British television, you might be familiar with his work, as he’s composed the themes and incidental music for Red Dwarf, Mr. BeanThe Vicar of Dibney, Blackadder, and others, which is only the tip of a rather diverse career.  As I say, he knows what he’s talking about.  He’s entrenched in the industry.  That also means that his personal tastes are going to intrude, and he’ll grace you with his insider commentary about certain styles that you may or may not agree with.  For example, he’s clearly not impressed with medieval plain chant.  His take on musical history goes through all of the obligatory points that I list above, and it includes one you don’t see very often: technological advancement.  The development and evolution of musical instruments has as much to do with the change in styles over the centuries as any change in social attitude.  That in itself makes this book a winner as far as I’m concerned.  Another point in his favor is that he brings in cultural diversification, so we can see how things like Rock and Roll developed from Be-bop, Cuban rhythms, and a variety of other ideas, which were in turn built upon other ideas, and so forth.  You don’t encounter ideas like this very often in a book that discusses Beethoven or Opera.

The down side is that some of the things that could (and should) have been elaborated on were glossed over.  I’d have liked to have learned more about Eastern influences and their use of the Pentatonic scales vs. Western uses of the same.  I’d have liked to have learned more about the Medieval and Renaissance troubadours and secular music rather than proceeding straight on to the likes of Monteverdi or Vivaldi, both of whom could also have been expanded upon.  His commentaries on film scores as modern classical are spot-on.  More please?  The world is literally gasping from an absence of air on this topic!

I guess what I’m saying here is that as an overview, this book does a great job of what it set out to do, but I’d love more of it in regards to many of the topics herein.  Goodall’s contemporary perspectives, snarky commentary aside, lend an interesting counterpoint to great many things I learn about when it comes to musical history.  But for the person just wading into a topic like this, it takes the scary and arcane out of it, and that’s why it works so well.  As a bonus, the last couple of chapters dealing with more modern music shows how many of the centuries-old concepts come around time and again.

4 stars

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