A review of The Story Of Music: From Babylon To The Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization by Howard Goodall.

What a superb book! I stumbled across Howard Goodall’s BBC shows on YouTube and I was mesmerized. People interested in music come in a few different flavors. There are the kind who don’t care about the technical or historical details, the serious listener. Then there are the academics who are quite tolerant of belaboring the details, usually of some very, very narrow area of expertise. Goodall drops down right between those to satisfy someone who is primarily interested in listening (and making?) good music but who also wants some context and understanding.

The scope of this book is truly extraordinary. The book really gets going as (what we know of) music did, with the advent of a permanent record, i.e. notation, and western harmony. These things do seem to be major genesis events. I believe that the computer age is also such an epoch — what will result from such a low barrier to making music and an undreamed of access to it will be something quite exciting for the future. This leave’s this book’s scope as a good place to reflect.

I’m sure there have been other books that attempted to tell this story but one of the reasons that it really worked so well for me only now is the internet. I read this book near my computer and my YouTube/Spotify play histories are now filled with some very odd, but very illustrative historical work. What a miracle of our age that I could listen along to the exact music that Goodall expertly was discussing. I highly recommend this as it enhances the value of the experience immeasurably. Goodall has a play list mentioned in the book, but I was looking up and playing everything he mentioned and then some. Well worth it. I discovered some wonderful music that I just had never known about before. (John Field? Irish? Who knew?)

I am interested in music theory because I am interested in being a better musician. I’m not especially talented, so learning about technical things seems like a small way forward. I now am pretty sure that learning music theory effectively requires learning music history. A point Goodall makes often is that so much of musical terminology and organization is completely insane. Many classically trained music conservatory nerds are horrifically supercilious about the technical details of their business. They say things like, "Alto means high so of course it’s the lowest of the soprano registers. Duh!" and "Octave comes from the root word meaning eight which is why it’s obvious there are 12 notes in the western scale." Refreshingly, Goodall, very bravely defends classical music (and others) as worthwhile and essential without pretending these defects don’t exist.

Goodall never backed away from clear explanations of complex musical topics. He assumes the reader is interested enough in music to sit down to read 324 pages of music history, but otherwise not extensively schooled in music theory. What I liked most was his very human perspective on things. Sometimes I’d be preparing myself for some complex technical detail whose importance I’d overlooked and he’d say something like this (which is my favorite sentence from the entire book):

"The Beatles became the most famous and successful musicians of the twentieth century mainly because their songs were youthful, catchy and imaginative, and because everyone who heard them — millions of people across the planet — felt the world was a better place."

Not only is that a nice way to put it, it’s pretty much true.

If you’re interested in knowing why the music you love is the way it is or if you are interested in making music yourself that better integrates the vast western tradition, this book is highly recommended. If you can’t picture yourself slogging through 324 pages about anything (which is somewhat understandable), I definitely recommend checking out Goodall’s BBC programs on YouTube.