Monday, May 29, 2017

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

Why do we have music? What was the purpose? Music has been used through much of the history of man. Ancient paintings show indicators of musical instruments. However, we have little idea what this music was. While writing and paintings from early history can be studied, we have little idea what the actual music was. There were some early attempts to provide some guidelines for the performing of music (such as the psalms.) However, these were only very basic, and did not provide enough to fully replicate the experience of the ancient musical performances. It wasn't until the last thousand years where a form of musical notation was created. Even the early notation has only reached the modern sheet music in the last few hundred years. This finally allowed music to be shared and gave rise to classical composers. However, unlike paintings that are observed in their original form, sheet music is interpreted by the performers, and remains "living" centuries after it was created.
The Story of Music traces the history of music. Famous musicians (such as Beethoven and Bach) are given their place, as are other musicians that have made contributions to the evolution of music in other ways, such as those that helped introduce chord progressions and the differences of notes. (The perfect difference between notes was dropped in favor of equal distance between notes.) Even hundreds of years ago, there was an artificial differentiation between "popular" and "artistic" music. (Ironically some of the "popular" music such as operas are now treated as "artistic".) I wish they included music in the audiobook. Descriptions of music just don't do justice to understanding of music. (Hearing comparisons of Lizt and Danny Elfman further whet my appetite for listening to the music.)
This book would have been a great candidate for an "enhanced" audiobook that included snippets of the music discussed as it was going on. I thought that somebody might have created Spotify playlists. It turns out the author has the playlists at his website: The playlists are thorough - perhaps a little too much - with many requiring over a day's worth of nonstop listening to get through.
Though the author does attempt to focus on the entire spectrum of music, the focus drifts towards what we would call "western classical music". Popular music outside the western canon does get mentioned, but not with the detail of influential classical music. There is a sense of nostalgia given for the days when the "artistic" music of the day was also the most popular. (However, there still seemed to be the acknowledgement that serious music was for the elite in days past, even if it did have popular appeal.)
The advent of music broadcasting and playback equipment finally made popular music something that could not be ignored. The performing artist became as important (or even more important) than the composer. Popular music changed some of the common tropes of music composition, but stayed fairly consistent. Composition as a popular art form became mostly confined to film music. Popular music had its own cross-pollination, with negro spirituals borrowing from the British working-class and then morphing into jazz, and then rock and roll. The book felt like it ended too soon, but that may be due to recency bias. I was hoping to hear more of how music is evolving today.

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