Some books need music. Not all of them do, of course: a lot of books are best read in silence, with the mind providing any noise pertinent to the story. But some books require a soundtrack, and depending on the book, the contents of that soundtrack (or, more properly, playlist) will vary: it may contain instrumental works from film, television, or the classical catalogue (both Eastern and Western), or it may be dominated by vocal tracks from artists across the spectrum of popular music, or it might even be a mixture of both. Either way, when a book needs music, one has access to a variety of options for listening to that music, as well as a near-infinite number of artists to choose from. Depending on which corners of the Internet one inhabits, one might even be able to find prebuilt playlists for any book—or any mood—one can conceive of, as well as have the ability to build and share one’s own playlists, all for free.
But the amazing variety and ready availability of any kind of music at nearly any time to almost any listener is a relatively new phenomenon. As late as the early 1900s, it would have been difficult for even the most avid music-lover to even hear their favourite song more than twice or thrice a year, especially if said song was part of a long-format work like a symphony. Music wasn’t a cheap hobby, either: getting into a concert could be expensive. Not until the invention of radio, and then audio recording technology, was it possible for the average person to have ready access to music. This introduction of technology would also be the cause of a split between what is commonly called “classical music” and “popular music”—a split that is in some ways more imagined than real.
In his book The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles, Howard Goodall attempts to chronicle several thousands of years of music history in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. He does so for specific reasons: first, to show that classical music (such as most people commonly understand it) is not dead, but alive and well in the musical scores of film and television; and second, that music can and will continue to thrive as musicians share, borrow, and in many cases steal, ideas and techniques from other genres of music from around the world. Music, therefore—especially Western music—is not as monolithic an idea as some hidebound scholars might think (or want to think) it is; instead it is a constantly flowing, shifting, changing, altering landscape, with the old becoming new and the new becoming old and back around again almost as regularly as the change of the seasons.
One of my primary considerations when I pick up a nonfiction book is the author’s voice. Much of my own personal enjoyment can be easily made or broken by the way the author tells a story, and can determine whether I stick with a book or not, no matter how long it gets. Fortunately, Goodall has an entertaining voice to read: a voice honed by time spent as a radio and television host, as he is apparently the BBC’s go-to man for anything and everything to do with musical history and theory. There are, however, some parts that feel a bit dry, or go over my head, particularly when Goodall is explaining some point of musical theory that is really a lot more complex to the layperson than I think he’s aware of. These moments don’t happen very often, thankfully, and an incomplete understanding of those more confusing moments does not detract from understanding the rest of the book.
As for the content, about three-fourths of the book is fairly standard coverage of Western musical history, with some theory thrown in for good measure. It’s all very fun and very easy to read, with Goodall throwing in some interesting (often hilarious in a more acerbic vein) running commentary on whatever he happens to be discussing at the moment. In his chapter titled “The Age of Penitence, 1460-1650”, Goodall describes the quality of church music during the time period covered by the chapter thusly:
…church music was a rather more sombre affair, and the ordinary churchgoer prior to the Protestant Reformation is likely to have found singing in church a miserable, largely non-participatory activity. To ask forgiveness, repeatedly, was what congregations were mostly expected to do, all the while listening to choirs and priests singing at great length abut the same sentiment.
Take, too, this sharp criticism of the practice of creating castrati: male singers who were castrated while still young boys to maintain their soprano singing voices through into adulthood, in the chapter “The Age of Invention, 1650-1750”:
The practice of castrating young boys so that they could continue to sing soprano for the rest of their adult lives was promoted in the sixteenth century by the Vatican, envious of Protestant church choirs that had young women singing a soaring top line. Women were forbidden to sing in Catholic churches so the competitive cardinals chose instead to mutilate children.
Goodall readily applies his witty, easy-to-read, occasionally sarcastic voice to Western music’s greatest musicians, too, comparing Haydn and Mozart thusly in the chapter “The Age of Elegance and Sentiment, 1750-1850”:
The main difference between Haydn’s style and Mozart’s s really quite simple: if you can instantly remember the tune, it’s by Mozart. A brutal assessment, but a true one. Technically, Mozart’s approach was similar to Haydn’s – the same orchestra, the same chords, the same architecture – but he had the melodic gift of a god. If he composed it, a tune sings like no other.
As the selections above clearly show, reading Goodall’s writing is the farthest thing from a chore, even if he can get a bit confusing at times when he tries to tackle something a bit more theoretical.
What really makes this book worth reading, though, are the last three chapters, which deal with music towards the end of the nineteenth century all the way to the music of the early twenty-first. This is where Goodall discusses the issue of white mainstream musicians borrowing—or stealing—from non-white, marginalised cultures, musical traditions, and musicians. He talks about this early on when talking about rock music, which began with black musical styles and black musicians:
All that was now needed to turn this cocktail into a mass youth movement with electric guitar at its throbbing centre was for some white guys to repackage this black music for an even wider audience. We have already witnessed black music being ‘bleached’ for greater commercial appeal a number of times, often to the dismay of its original performers. … But there was no stopping the inexorable takeover of rock and roll by big-name white musicians, and there were plenty of candidates to become the heart-throbs of a generation.
Goodall shows that rock—a genre dominated by white performers, as it has been since Elvis Presley swaggered his way onto a stage—is, at its core, based on the innovations of black musicians, a fact which most people have forgotten; certainly very few people claiming to be rock aficionados are aware of this, or if they are, they perhaps choose to ignore it. This particular issue still resonates today, as white artists like Eminem and Iggy Azalea infringe on hip-hop and rap music, which have generally been dominated by black artists. Increasing awareness as led to an increasing amount of pushback: a notable example being the recent revelation that Iggy Azalea plagiarised content from Kendrick Lamar.
Also in these chapters, Goodall makes some very powerful statements regarding the split between “classical” and “popular” music, which was not only due to technology, as it turns out, but also due to a brand of elitism that began as a tiny seed with Richard Wagner, and reached its full flowering with Arnold Schoenberg. Goodall had this to say about Schoenberg’s innovations:
Schoenberg’s theoretical rebellion, which later acquired the labels ‘serialism’ or ‘atonality’, produced decades of scholarly hot air, books, debates and seminars, and – in its purest, strictest form – not one piece of music, in a hundred years’-worth of effort, that a normal person could understand or enjoy.
One thing is for sure: Schoenberg and his fellow-travelers in the redesigning of the Western note system were not courting a mainstream audience. When, during the next half-century, audiences reacted with hostility to serialist works, it seemed to confirm to the movement’s adherents that it was a cause so noble that ordinary, lesser mortals without ‘the knowledge’ would inevitably reject it. ‘Elitist’ is an overused word, tinged with resentment, but in describing serialist self-justification of the twentieth century it is spot on.
Goodall later points out that this dedication to serialism is the main reason why there are no truly famous classical composers from the early twentieth century to sometime in the seventies or eighties; it wasn’t just that popular music became more widespread and more commercially viable, it was also that the most well-known composers of the time were those who worked in what Schoenberg and his disciples would have scornfully called “popular” music: musicals, dance (especially ballet), and the growing industry of film.
Later on in the book Goodall follows up the above with another interesting assertion: that classical music (as it is popularly understood, meaning instrumental music a la Mozart and Beethoven and all the rest) never really died, it simply found another venue. That venue was—and continues to be—film:
To this day, millions of people who might never set foot in a classical concert hall thrill to the symphonic sound of film scores that are often made up entirely of classical orchestral styles and techniques. If anyone tells you classical music is dead in the twenty-first century, all it means is that they don’t go to the cinema.
While it might do to remember that this confident statement is being made by a man who does a lot of composition work for the BBC’s movies and TV shows and is likely biased, there is a very large grain of truth to it, as well. For many listeners of classical music in the late twentieth century to today, our first introduction to classical music is via film and TV scores. Some of us continue the engagement by not only listening to the works of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, but by actively seeking out and listening to film and TV scores by Howard Shore, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Ramin Djawadi.
But why stop at film and television? This gap is probably more an indicator of Goodall’s age than an intentional snub, but his assessment ignores another place where classical music may continue to thrive the way it does now in movies and TV: video games. While it’s true that the tinny 8-bit musical accompaniment to many arcade classics cannot be compared to John Williams’ sweeping scores for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies (except in terms of nostalgia value), rapid advancements in technology now mean that there’s a trend of video games moving increasingly towards a more cinematic approach to visual style and storytelling—as well as an equally more cinematic musical score. From the East-meets-West, past-meets-present compositions of Japanese composers like Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy) and Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts); to the grandiose, epic drama of Jeremy Soule (The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim); to the quieter, elegant musicality of Austin Wintory (Journey); video games are a new frontier for classical composers, and will someday soon gain the same kind of legitimacy now given to film scores.
One immediate problem with this book, though, is that it’s a book that discusses music, but there’s no music to listen to. Fortunately, Goodall is caught up enough with the times that he offers a fairly comprehensive playlist of musical pieces towards the end of the book, along with a link to his website, which has even more comprehensive Spotify playlists (click here). My only complaint is that I wish the list had been put at the beginning of the book, instead of at the end, so that I knew it was there and could make use of it throughout the course of my reading. It rather defeats the purpose of having that list in the first place if the reader must go through the entire book first before finding out that they could have had musical accompaniment right from the get-go.
Overall, The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles is pretty much what it says on the tin: an overview of Western musical history from the BCEs to the current CEs, done in a manner that focuses on the most important bits while trimming off the unnecessary minutiae. Goodall goes through a lot of history in a very short amount of time, managing to do so without sacrificing accuracy or historical detail. His voice is entertaining and easy to read, though he can be a bit dry in places, and there are moments when he gets bogged down in technicalities while trying to explain a particular musical theory. Fortunately, these moments don’t last very long, and do not detract from overall understanding of the book’s contents.
Goodall reserves his strongest and most important assertions regarding Western music, and the direction he thinks it’s headed, for the last three chapters of the book. Those assertions may be slightly problematic (not least his discussion—such as it is—of white mainstream musical artists appropriating the art of their non-white marginalised fellows), but it does provide some insight into what’s going on under the hood and behind the scenes music today, and where it might be going in the future.