Best Read With Playlists – A Review of The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles by Howard Goodall

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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.

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9 thoughts on “Best Read With Playlists – A Review of The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles by Howard Goodall

  1. The idea that rock is some sort of exclusive Black club that the White Men invaded is a lie. Folk music, the precursor to rock (Blues is just one genre of folk) included people of various ethnicities. Folk music was an amlagam of various ethnic music that resulted in Irish ballads sang with banjos (an African instrument).

    People who worry about those dang white people in Hip-Hop should choose their battles and ask, first of all, why so many acclaimed rappers despise women so much. Hip-Hop is also less black than it seems. Kraftwerk and electronic music was an important influence – much more at first than Jazz music.

    The history of music is often percieved by people in simple terms. Beatles were big, and black people invented everything. Of course, this doesn’t cover the various ethnicities involved, or the major influenced of Kraftwerk (Perhaps much more influential than the Beatles), Dance music, etc. etc. Then again, a lot of people are sure music in the past (“Hey Jude”) is better than today (CHVRCHES, Hollywood Undead, Enter Shikari)..

    I also wish classical music would move away from film scores and video games. It doesn’t work there. Have you ever heard The Social Network’s score? You couldn’t experess the coldness and neurosis of money-hungry nerds with an orchestra. It’s time for composers to abandon these sounds and seek new ones. Film scores are actually where music is dying.

    Sorry for the long comment. I’m very passionate about music, and I always have a lot to say.

    1. You’re right to say that rock isn’t an exclusive black club, and that no genre of popular music today is exclusively the purview of any specific race, but I think we must also acknowledge the musical history of those genres–something which isn’t done as frequently as I think it ought to be. Giving credit where credit is due is a form of respect many non-white artists hardly ever receive, so I suppose Goodall was trying to do them a good turn turn when he made that statement regarding rock’s history.

      I don’t think film music is the One True Road to Salvation for classical music (which Goodall certainly seems to imply but he is, as I mentioned, probably biased because he does work on film and TV scores for the BBC), but they are a gateway to appreciation. And while I do agree that not all film and video game scores are worth listening to, I think there’s plenty that are. Criteria will vary from person to person, of course, but I do think film and video game scores are, if not the One True Way, at least one way for classical music to keep itself going.

      But your statement about “film scores are actually where music is dying” makes me curious. What do you mean by that, precisely? And don’t apologise for your passion for music: no one should have to apologise for their passions, unless it is thoroughly objectionable, like a passion for genocide.

      1. Non-white artists like Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Little Richard?

        The actual artists who don’t get respect aren’t the lucky Little Richard’s. They are the unlucky Dock Boggs and Blind Willie Johnson. These are people so poor no one knows when exactly they were born. One of them happens to be white.

        The narrative that black people created something solely of their own, and that no one acknowledges it is just fuel for a victim complex.

        I believe Classical music can offer much more than these film scores. Exclude a few electronic ones, film scores are the laziest form of music there is. The music gets louder during the action, and quiet when there’s nothing. Clint Mansell is a great example. His scores are decent, but he went from one of the most experimental bands (Pop Will Eat Itself) to just improving on Hans Zimmer.

        This is what I meant. Most composers aren’t even on the level of Clint Mansell. Most of them are boneheads, not even bothering to create a sound for the film. Sticking an orchestra in there is easy. It’s harder to design a unique sound that will fit the film. That’s why the Fight Club and Social Network scores are so great. They have a specific sound that’s related to the films’ themes.

      2. True, classical music can offer more than just film scores, but they are, as I said, a gateway to appreciation. One must begin somewhere, and for many, film scores are an easy step towards other works. After all, I don’t think I would have gone on to discover Sofia Gubaidulina’s exquisite cello compositions had I not first been captivated by John Williams’ score for Jurassic Park when I was a child. Not the most straightforward road, but it is the one I took, and possibly one others have taken, and others will take in the future.

        I don’t think film scores – the good ones, anyway – are necessarily lazy. It takes a lot of skill to write a score that complements a film perfectly without getting in the way, and holding something as large as a film score together in a coherent manner is no easy feat. It’s not as easy as “sticking an orchestra in there”. After all, an orchestra is a large collection of individuals using wildly varying instruments to create something that actually sounds good, and managing that is no easy thing. I tend to think of it as a multipurpose, multifunctional weapon that needs to be deployed appropriately and with skill – which is not something all composers can do.

        Zimmer isn’t necessarily one of those composers who can do that: he can write a really good, distinctive theme for a movie, but the overall structure of his scores often leave something to be desired. One listens to just one track on his scores, and may take or leave the rest.

        But then again, I suppose Zimmer composes the kind of score that pushes a movie along, but not much else. He doesn’t exactly write leitmotifs, after all, not like John Williams (whose “Imperial March” is skillfully deployed throughout the first three Star Wars movies to create both foreshadowing and character) and Howard Shore (whose score for the Lord of the Rings movies is so well done, in my opinion, that just listening to it I can rebuild the entire movie in my head, complete with dialogue).

        This is the first time I’ve heard of Mansell; thank you for mentioning him, I’ll try to find his material and give it a listen.

        I haven’t listened very closely to the score for Fight Club, and I haven’t seen The Social Network. I’ll stick to listening to the Fight Club score, as I’ve actually seen the movie; getting to The Social Network may take some time, as I don’t have access just yet to a copy I can watch.

      3. I take back what I said about Mansell: I have heard his work before, but I never thought to put a name to the piece. I haven’t heard his work while he was with Pop Will Eat Itself, but it turns out I have heard his score work before. His take on Lux Aeterna that has become very popular is a piece I find enjoyable to listen to, though it takes a certain mood to get me to actually play it. I did not know he was the one scoring Aronofsky’s movies, but then I suppose that says something about his film score work that I never felt inclined to listen to it independent of the movies he wrote them for. Neither did I know he did the score for Mass Effect 3, but again, I barely remember the score of that game outside of the game itself.

        But once I have a more stable connection I’ll track down Pop Will Eat Itself on Spotify and give them a listen. As I understand it, Mansell was with them only during the first few years of the band’s career?

      4. Clint Mansell was actually with them until the end – including the lost album ‘A Lick of the Old Casette Box’. “Lux Aeterna” is pretty good, but I wouldn’t call it exactly original. In terms of musical ideas, it’s a big step-down compared to the work with PWEI.

        When I meant that filmscoring became lazy is that people opt for orchestra for no reason other than it’s the norm. Howard Shore is a great example. I haven’t watched LOTR, but his work with the director Cronenberg makes him come off as a joke. He uses the same orchestral stuff in films like Videodrome, which is about mind-controlling porno films. Such films deserve slightly more unique soundscapes. We heard plenty of orchestras in films. It’s time for some new sounds.

      5. No, I wouldn’t say Mansell’s Lux Aeterna is original–after all, it is a part of the old Latin Requiem Mass, and I’ve heard some lovely examples by Palestrina (such lovely solemnity when executed by a skilled choir), and Mozart, of course (exquisite melody, but then again it’s Mozart). And of course there’s the other famous Lux Aeterna from film: Gyorgy Ligeti’s version, which was used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (they used the Kyrie as well, but it’s the Lux Aeterna that sticks in most people’s minds, and for good reason).

        May I venture to guess that what you oppose in film music is not so much the use of an orchestra, as an over-reliance on it instead of exploring other avenues and technologies for creating an appropriate musical soundscape? If so, then I do agree with you on this, to an extent, especially with sci-fi movies, where one would expect a far more forward-looking soundscape than the traditional orchestra. What did you think, then, of Steven Price’s score for Gravity? I thought it quite well done, but I would like to know what you thought.

        I highly recommend watching the LotR movies, if you haven’t seen them. I think you will see that an orchestral score is the only way to go with those movies. And Shore’s use of leitmotifs is so well done in his score: his use of the leitmotif for the One Ring is so subtle in some parts that it seems only the subconscious hears it, with the conscious mind catching up later.

      6. The Space Odyssey is one of the worse soundtracks ever. Space is alien and strange. Using more natural and organic sounds defeats its purpose. That’s why the Social Network worked so well. The clinical and cold tones of the electronica was perfect for it.

        You’re right. My problem is over-reliance. I actually don’t want to hear anything else in a movie like LORT, or in a fantasy video game like Skyrim. When I see an environment filled with electronics, I expect the soundtrack to echo that. When I see an environment that’s broken, I expect to hear broken instruments (Fallout soundtrack). The best composers tend to be pop musicians (Reznor, Atticus Ross, Charlie Clouser).

      7. I’ve decided to risk listening to the Social Network soundtrack without having seen it, and going solely on the film summary, I would say it is an appropriate soundtrack, at least based on my expectations of what the movie is about. As you say, the colder colours of electronica suit a movie that focuses on technology.

        Perhaps the over-reliance on the orchestra is a result of composers coming from a very specific mindset? Perhaps not all of them are aware, or are interested in, working with electronica: I would imagine that the hothouse environment of many musical conservatories would not encourage interest in electronic music. Which is rather unfortunate, as I rather imagine that if more musicians of all persuasions and backgrounds were to explore electronic music, it would help nudge the genre forward and encourage further incorporation and use outside of the niches it currently occupies.

        But at the same time, I wonder if some composers think electronica is too cold, too emotionally distant. Perhaps they think that electronica does not have the emotional warmth that would appeal to a general audience? I don’t share that opinion, since I think that all music, when well done and suitable, will always appeal to emotion whether it is electronic or orchestral (or both), but I think it’s possible that some composers might think electronica lacks enough emotional appeal to work in film scores.

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