Recommend a musical history book


I’m looking for a musical history book—not just music of the western world (though any particular texts you find interesting there would be appreciated) but a book dealing with prehistoric (i.e. pre-literate, before language music) and ancient music.

In fact, any music history majors: I grovel at your feet. Any books you’ve found particularly enlightening on music, say, pre-1900, I’d love to read.


It doesn’t really deal with the prehistoric time that you mentioned, but the standard in Western music history isA History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca.

As the OP said we could recommend texts we found to be particularly interesting even though they didn’t fit the thread’s main criteria, I’ll plug Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise. It’s a compulsively readable, wonderfully evocative social history of serious music in the 20th century. A book I wouldn’t feel afraid to suggest to people who really aren’t musical at all and to serious music lovers alike. The companion website is a great resource also.

Not quite a book, but I heartily recommend the DVDs from the Teaching Company with Robert Greenberg’s lectures on music history and on famous composers (their lives and work). You can probably get them from your public library.

I don’t know any books about prehistoric music, but I’d highly recommend Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk if you have any interest at all in early punk music.

More on the musical theory side of things rather than history Howard Goodall’s How Music Works is one of the best expositions imaginable covering music through the ages and from all over the globe. It does not appear to be available on DVD (I downloaded my copy years ago) but, for the moment at least, is on youtube in 9 minute chunks. The 4 episodes are Melody, Harmony, Rhythm and Bass.

The best musical education material I have seen on TV.

You might be interested in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen. It’s not exactly beach reading, but it’s really interesting.

I champion this book whenever I can, so +1

I also have tons of other recommendations for specific periods - but most are biographies or specific angle that happen to shed additional light.

But an overall book that might be used in “music appreciation”? I gotta ponder that on.

Hey **Drum God **- how does that book read?

  • Great reference, but dry as the Sahara? (i.e., very text-booky)
  • Decent reference but actually well-written and accessible?
  • Both?
  • Neither?

I loved the Yehudi Menuhin ‘The Music of Man’, and one of these days, surely, it must come out again on DVD. Here’s a brief YouTube of the interview with Glenn Gould.
In the meantime, the book is still around in used shops and is worth the pain of tracking it down.

Worlds of Music was the current text for ethno-musicology when I was at school, and you might find some of it fascinating from the stand point of what some modern ‘isolated’ peoples do in terms of their music.

Based on don’t ask’s recommendation I have now watched How Music Works and agree it’s very good. Thanks for the tip.

This also reminded me of Simon Rattle’s wonderful Leaving Home: Music in the 20th Century. It’s seven episodes long, I think, and very worthy. Each episode has a theme, such as harmony or rhythm or music under totalitarianism. The music is varied and good and the presentation is polished and quite often beautiful.

I also agree with C K Dexter Haven about the Teaching Company and especially on Robert Greenberg. That man’s enthusiasm is contagious and he has yet found a subject he couldn’t make sound exciting and interesting.