Now that the school year has gotten fully underway, students and perhaps teachers alike have a list of recommended reading. Students will be reading these books with the intention of later writing book reports, while teachers are reading to keep up on the latest trends in education and requirements of the new Core curriculum. Once in a while, however, it’s nice to have a second list of books--which while they may be informative and related to core subject matter—are lighter and less weighty in their treatment of said subject matter, falling more into the category of pleasure reading. This week’s column has a few suggestions which you might want to add to this second reading list, so pick up one or two and sit back in your cozy reading chair for some pleasurable books which will improve your brain and expand your knowledge.
Battle of the Scholars. While its subject matter may sound dry, Temperament by author Stuart Isacoff, tackles the weighty battles which have taken place throughout the history of Western music over the measurements and theories which went in to developing our current tonal scale in a way that captures the reader’s interest from the very first page. The book traces the development of tonal theory which led to today’s system of equal temperament, going back to early theories first developed by Pythagoras, da Vinci, and Galileo and tracing the arrangement of notes on a keyboard as it changed from the time of the ancient Greeks through the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment theory. Furthermore, this book places these quarrels and developmental changes in the context of the worlds of art, religion, philosophy, politics, and science.
For all of the weightiness of the issues dealt with in its pages, anecdotes and portraits of the world’s greatest musical geniuses transport the reader back into time to help personalize these scientific and theoretical developments in a way that brings them home to the casual reader. While a basic knowledge of music theory is needed to get the most from this book, Isacoff’s writing style makes it accessible to anyone from the late teens on. In the words of the National Review, this book takes the reader into a “Thrilling story that is as accessible as it is absorbing…This is a whirlwind tour through the history of Western culture, told with flair and grace.” Published by Vintage Books, www.vintagebooks.com.
A History Told Through Song. The other three books on our reading list explore both American and World Histories by examining some of the songs which make up the canons of popular culture. The first of these is entitled Listening to Classical American Popular Songs, by author Allen Forte, former Battle Professor of the Theory of Music at Yale University. Covering the canon of American popular song in the years 1925 through around 1950, the book is centered on some of the greatest songs of each decade—relating each of these songs to the cultural history surrounding its writing and explaining in-depth just which aspects of music theory and songwriting style has gone into making these songs “classics.”
In addition, by learning the history of these songs (which are often neglected by today’s music students) we get an insight into some of the greatest American composers of all time—George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, and other greats who should be household names not only to every music student but to every American. While the book delves in-depth to the chorus, verses, and melodic structure of each song, a preliminary chapter reviews the basic theoretical principles of the musical construction of these jazz standards—rhythm; melodic structure; major/minor chords and keys; common chord progressions; and the standard verse/chorus form—so that the reader is then ready to dive into the in-depth song analyses.
An accompaniment CD allows the reader to listen to the songs while examining the notation examples provided within the body of the chapters for an even better understanding. This book is designed for readers who have a basic familiarity with music notation; but for those who are, it is an excellent way to delve into the history of this often neglected repertoire which embodies the American spirit and provides a glimpse into our shared past. Peter Duchin, renowned pianist and band leader calls it “A wonderful book,” and states “I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who has even the vaguest interest in one of the few truly original American art forms.” Published by Yale University Press, www.yale.edu/yup.
A book which has been around for a few years, but deserves another look is Daniel J. Levitin’s The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. This follow-up to Levitin’s New York Times bestseller, This is Your Brain on Music, shows how music has helped to preserve “the emotional heritage of our lives and of our species,” by illustrating how music has helped to bond us in a way which has led to the development of our very society and allowed the worlds of art and science to flourish and grow.
After an introductory chapter, Levitin introduces and finds songs from around the world which have helped to create and maintain six different cultural/societal concepts—friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and finally love. He draws examples from both popular music, folk songs, hymns, anthems, and the classical canon to make his points in a way which is easily accessible to the lay reader who may have little to no knowledge of music theory. In fact, it is most likely his own mix of experiences as a professional musician, record producer, and research scientist that makes his prose so easy to relate to; along with the humorous anecdotes drawn from his own life as a music lover that keep the reader engaged throughout.
Designed for historians, sociologist, musicians, and just plain music lovers, Six Songs unlocks some of the hidden doors to our world’s cultures, while it shows us just how much alike we really are thanks to our shared love of the music which is such an intrinsic part of our daily lives. Vocalist and guest conductor Bobby McFerrin is just one of the authors who gives Levitin’s book high praise. “Why can a song make you cry in a matter of seconds? Six Songs is the only book that explains why. With original and awe-inspiring insights into the nature of human artistry, it’s irresistibly entertaining. Anyone who loves music should read it.” Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group, Inc., get more information on Levitin’s books and research at his website www.sixsongs.net.
Another truly entertaining read despite its title, is the book This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music, by Adam Brent Houghtaling. Going back through music culled from all genres created over the last hundred years or so, the author has come up with songs written by artists and musicians who have managed to capture the particular state of “melancholy.” He goes on to explain just which characteristics these songs and the artists who have performed them over the years have in common which can move us to tears and goes on to explain just how this is so. Why does Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings immediately transport most listeners into the world of deep sadness? Why has Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah become an almost universal anthem for the lonely and down-hearted as well as a plea for prayer in many religious services? How does the plaintively pure sound of Billie Holiday’s voice make her the perfect choice for presenting repertoire for haunting songs such as Strange Fruit? Was it the haunting video or the maudlin lyrics of REM’s song Everybody Hurts, which propelled it to such enormous success? What was is that turned the song Brother Can You Spare a Dime into the embodiment of the Great Depression?
Possible answers to these and many other similar questions are addressed within the pages of this book, which turns out to be so much more entertaining than one might think, given the subject matter. Plus, the book includes a host of sad-song playlists and ends with the authors own list of what he terms as the 100 Saddest Songs and includes an in-depth study of why he has chosen each one. Whether your tastes run from Chopin, to Hank Williams, to Bing Crosby, to Depeche Mode you are sure to find a sad song which has made your own all-time favorite wallowing song. If nothing else, the book is handy to have around when you are looking for a song to accompany your next relationship break-up, broken arm, job loss, or even bad case of the flu. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews explains its attraction thusly, “Whether read straight through or dipped into at random, in times of despair or not, this is a most helpful musical sourcebook through every kind of blue.” Published by It Books (Now Dey Street Books), an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishing, read more at www.harpercollins.com.
For more information about any of these books head to your public library or check out popular sites like www.goodreads.com. , www.amazon.com. , www.googlebooks.com., or wherever you look for your reading material.
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