It’s probably time to retire the phrase ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ If its origins are vague – you can read about it on its own Wikipedia page – it still sounds like the phrase that gets trotted out when a musician gets a less than favourable review. It hasn’t stopped people from writing about music, as our lists ably demonstrate, certainly more than dancing about architecture. Unless, of course, there is a secret cabal of choreographers armed with theodolites ready for their next piece.
We have to confess that we are biased in favour of writing about music. At A Closer Listen we’ve devoted thousands of hours listening to records that have been sent to us, and then trying to put our response into adequate language – and we can only imagine there are literally tens of other websites doing similar things. There are many motivations for doing what we do, but the main reason is that we love music, and we want to communicate why. And that is often the starting point for the books on our list.
The selection is listed alphabetically by author (or, in some cases, editor), and is divided over two days. Such was our enthusiasm that we have written two other lists, one of more image=focused books and one of books about music aimed at younger readers. These will appear over the weekend and might give you a few pointers when buying gifts for friends or family.
Speaking of shopping, it is worth noting that several of the books on our list are currently out of print. We are reluctant to send you to Amazon when there are a lot of other retailers out there struggling in tough economic climes, so here are a few pointers if you’re in the US or UK.
Second-hand bookshops that you can visit are listed here: Biblio (USA) or The Book Guide (UK)
Independent online retailers include: Powells or Thriftbooks (both USA), or Bookshop.org (UK)
Biblio also has links for Europe and the rest of the world, and there’s ViaLibri which hosts multiple retailers.
We’re not anti-Amazon – it would be hypocritical to suggest otherwise – but it’s worth trying elsewhere first. We are fans of bookshops and libraries; exploring these places will get you out of the house and might even send you off in fresh directions. They are often community hubs as well, so besides finding that one book on your list, you might make new friends. We’re happy to admit that ‘friends’ might be books as well people.
And with that, please feel free to peruse our choices of the best books on music – part one.
Jacques Attali ~ Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Manchester University Press, 1985)
What does music mean? Attali’s book approaches the question not through the lens of music criticism but political economy. The author intimately ties the question with processes of production and social organization in which what is listenable reflects what is understandable in our societies. The titular noise indicates the limits of the social imagination, an out-there brimming with radical potential, the power to cast anew the present state of things. Arguing that music becomes constrained by the forms of commoditization of our age, Attali points towards the economic apparatus that supposedly produces and privileges individual artists but in reality props up corporations: we’ve been listening to the same things over and over because nothing has truly changed (Spotify lists, anyone?). The answer lies in what is not music, in what we consider noise, and therefore potentially outside the purview of the commodity form. (David Murrieta Flores)
Derek Bailey ~ Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music (Da Capo, 1980/1993)
English guitarist Derek Bailey endures as a central figure in improvised music nearly two decades after his death, and likewise his short book on the subject remains essential reading. Written in the mid 1970s and published in 1980, this slim volume formed the basis of Bailey’s four-part 1992 BBC series, On The Edge: Improvisation in Music. Directed by Jeremy Marre and hosted by Bailey himself, that series did for improvisation what John Berger’s Ways of Seeing did for visual culture, and a slightly expanded (but still lean) edition was released the following year, augmented with excerpts from interviews with a diverse cast of musicians, from John Zorn to Jerry Garcia, Max Roach to Evan Parker, and many more. While the documentary has the advantage of sonic examples demonstrating the various manifestations of improvisation, historical and contemporary, this text allows for a deeper investigation into this elusive musical process. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Philip Ball ~ The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Many books have been written on similar subjects, but few if any with this level of accessibility. Ball starts in the womb and the nursery and proceeds to adulthood, explaining the appeal not only of music, but of different forms of music. We are musical creatures in a musical world, but it takes multiple fields to explain why. Nature and nurture come into play, as well as philosophy and psychology. Yet after all the science, Ball leaves space for “we just do.” (Richard Allen)
Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) ~ Blues People (William Morrow, 1963 / Harper, 1999)
Blues People is the foundational study of the broad effects of jazz and blues music on American culture (and beyond). Baraka, then a poet still going by the name LeRoi Jones who was soon to found the Black Arts Movement, asks what black history sounds like through studying the evolution of music. From the songs of the enslaved to the contemporary music of the early 1960s, Baraka traces the wide influence of this music. The history of the blues is tied up in a particular style of performance and cultural expression, inspiring Baraka himself to study history after hearing the resonant desperation of old blues recordings. Black musicians used their art to confront racism, poverty, and white supremacy, Baraka argues, viewing the cosmopolitan sophistication of jazz as a direct rebuttal to Eurocentric narratives. Looking back on the book half a century later, Baraka affirmed that blues was still “the predominate music under all American music.” (Joseph Sannicandro)
Robert Barry ~ The Music of the Future (Repeater Books, 2017)
Proposed as a history of failures, this book takes on the musical side of the Western cultural imaginary of modernity, in which “the future” is heavily coded as an extensive break with the past and present. It is, in other words, a history of the avant-garde, in which history weaves together John Cage and Jlin, Sun Ra and György Ligeti. This imaginary seeks social transformation and dreams in the key of revolutionary movements; in Barry’s account, it links together disparate artists and moments in time that nonetheless envision musical acts as historical acts, events that in unfolding would impart the social spirit of the new. In his analysis, our present is an end-of-history moment of staleness, of digitally driven saturation, struck by the loss of music’s deeper value: a perfect moment to reimagine it, to re-produce it, to bring back notions of the future that do not simply extend what currently exists. (David Murrieta Flores)
Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton ~ Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (Headline, 1999 / 2006 / 2022)
The much-missed football manager Graham Taylor was once asked what made a great manager. ‘Simple,’ he said. ‘Great players.’ It’s a similar argument that drives Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. What makes a great DJ? Simple – great records. It’s not about the residencies, money in the bank, or beat-matching talent, argue Brewster and Broughton, it’s about having the eyes to spot the right record in the crate and having the ears to know when to play it. They talk to the pioneers rather than the biggest names in the business (although these pioneers are often pretty big names in their own right). The authors bring knowledge and enthusiasm to this exhaustive study of DJ culture, while also recognising the humour to be found in a topic that is treated far too seriously too often. As a bonus, they keep adding material for each update. (Jeremy Bye)
Daphne A. Brooks ~ Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound (Belknap / Harvard University Press, 2021)
Recording technologies profoundly transformed our relationship to music, and the emergence of the “collector” has since shaped how music becomes remembered and historicized. Brooks, a professor at Yale, is an interdisciplinary scholar focusing primarily on African American literary, cultural, and performance studies. Her work often underscores the role played by criticism in contextualizing and historicizing music, applying the lens of performance in order to ask questions about the expression of subjectivity. In Liner Notes for the Revolution, these strains combine for a deeply researched and personally situated exploration of race and gender in the history of rock music, “fighting with the white masculinist ‘aural gaze’ hanging over” music history. Brooks’ counterhistoriography uncovers the contributions of Black women and, perhaps more crucially, attends to the means by which critics and listeners have influenced the reception of Black women performers and recording artists. Of particular interest is the long overdue critique of John Fahey’s conflation of blackness, death, and aggression, which spins into a broader critique of the arrogance of the collecting class. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Clemency Burton-Hill ~ Year Of Wonder (Headline, 2017)
Violinist and broadcaster Clemency Burton-Hill has long been an evangelist for classical music in all its variety, from Hildegard Von Bingen to Anna Meredith. She has hosted the Classical Fix podcast which introduces a bespoke choice of music to her guests – Year Of Wonder is an extension of that idea. It’s a book designed for the era of streaming, with 366 selections presented to guide us through the seasons. You won’t like everything, but you should discover something new and wonderful. Burton-Hill suffered a horrific brain injury in early 2020, which meant she has had to learn to speak again; her situation and this book remind us that each day is a gift. (Jeremy Bye)
John Cage ~ Silence: Lectures And Writings (Wesleyan University Press, 1961)
There are more accessible ways to discover the thoughts and philosophies of John Cage – indeed, we have one included in this list. But this is a book that has fascinated me since I first found it, many years ago, filed incorrectly in a university library. It’s not a collection to read cover-to-cover: Silence is a work to take your time with, and process slowly. It may take months, even years, to read through. Parts of it are closer to the works of e e cummings or William S. Burroughs than an essay by any other composer. Which makes sense given Cage’s approach to musical notation. It may be confusing and impenetrable at times, but it gradually increases our understanding and appreciation of one of 20th-century music’s key figures. (Jeremy Bye)
Joel Chadabe ~ Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music (Prentice Hall, 1996)
As much as the musical mediascape has changed since the release of this book, Joel Chadabe’s excellent overview of 20th century electronic music endures as a vivid and concise history that should nonetheless be of great interest to any reader. Chadabe was a composer, performer, researcher, entrepreneur, and teacher of wide influence, and his personal grounding in the subject elevates the text above similar volumes. Drawing on over 150 interviews with a diverse group of professionals in a wide variety of roles and experiences, Electronic Sound details the music, instruments, and techniques of electronic music, from the pioneers of electronic synthesis in the early 20th century, through mid-century evolution of tape music, and the development of modern synthesizers and computer music. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (editors) ~ Audio Culture: Readings In Modern Music (Continuum, 2004)
An excellent compendium of writing by a cross-section of experimental musicians and composers, Audio Culture is a book to dip into frequently. It’s a mix of extracts, interviews, and articles from magazines and books that are often tricky to track down. You might not know they even exist, which makes looking for them even more challenging. Unfortunately, it is a male-centric collection, which was baffling when first published and seems even more out of kilter today. However, what the editors have collected is fascinating: We get Glenn Gould’s thoughts on why he stopped playing live and focused on recordings. There is Simon Reynolds’ essay on Post-Rock for the Village Voice which proved the key text for defining a nascent genre. In addition, there are several extracts from books we cover here (Shaefer, Eshun, Toop and Eno). It feels like a ‘greatest hits’ collection: we may quibble with what is over-looked, but we can’t argue with what is included. (Jeremy Bye)
Trevor Cox ~ The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
We might suggest a different title: How to Listen Closely. The book delves into the way sound is generated, how it travels and how it is received. The natural world receives a good deal of coverage, but one of the most intriguing segments covers a “singing road” that plays different notes as one drives it. Cox is approachable and amusing, an entertaining teacher. By the end, readers will be able to listen more closely, and to understand how and why they are doing so. (Richard Allen)
Jeremy Denk ~ Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons (Random House, 2022)
This hilarious, moving, and almost explicit memoir is a joy to read. Denk tells his life story by focusing on the teachers who helped him become who he is. Even though the music he studies is the kind only accessible to elite-level musicians, the stories of the teachers he tells will be familiar to all of us: there are good ones, bad ones, average ones; cruel, kind, and extraordinary ones. It’s wonderfully refreshing to read such an accomplished pianist pay tribute to (and occasionally dish the dirt on!) these people. Denk is an entertaining storyteller with a gift for humor and his descriptions of music and his deep understanding of how the music works are clear and insightful. The audiobook is highly recommended, featuring as it does excerpts of the pieces Denk describes. (Garreth Brooke)
Brian Eno ~ A Year With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber, 1996)
He crops up in the indices of probably a dozen of our selected books, so it is only fair that Brian Eno gets a mention for his 1995 diary – as a bonus, it is a thoroughly entertaining read. A Year With Swollen Appendices pulls back the curtain on his work and life for a busy year. There is production work undertaken, mostly with U2 (as Passengers) and Bowie (for Outside) as well as his art installations. There is also WarChild, lectures, perfume, and the Spinner album with Jah Wobble. This begs the question: where does he find the time? This is answered early on – Brian married his manager, Anthea Norman-Taylor, and she does all the mundane but vital organisation work. Eno writes with humour and candor: his interests are wide-ranging as are the projects he undertakes and there are enlightening little nuggets on every page. (Jeremy Bye)
Kodwo Eshun ~ More Brilliant Than The Sun: Adventures In Sonic Fiction (Quartet, 1998)
Ideas tumble out of More Brilliant Than The Sun at a bewildering rate. Eshun’s prose is dizzying and erudite, capturing a piece of music or a cultural movement in a few brief sentences before moving on. It reads like a rapper spittin’ fire, pulling in quotes from disparate sources (movies, comics, theorists). Certainly, the spirit of hip-hop is prevalent here; books are ‘sampled’ rather than quoted, for example. Words are mashed together to form fresh concepts, and arguably this is where AfroFuturism really takes shape. Eshun takes us from the tape editing of Miles and Macero through the birth of hip-hop to the underwater techno experimentation of Drexciya. The mash-up of sci-fi and black culture creates breakbeat science. It is an idea so potent that it’s frustrating there hasn’t been a reprint or revised edition – this can’t be pigeon-holed as cultural theory, it’s like a bomb going off. (Jeremy Bye)
James R. Gaines ~ Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment (Fourth Estate, 2005)
This is a fascinating exploration of how two pivotal European figures met, an in-depth study of the Musical Offering that resulted from the meeting, and an entertaining twin biography to boot. Our readers will have an idea of Bach’s importance but some may be unaware of Frederick the Great, a pivotal figure in European and specifically German history whose military successes helped Prussia become a pre-eminent power and whose patronage made a significant contribution to the spread of the Enlightenment. The chapters alternate between Bach and Frederick, comparing and contrasting the two (mainly contrasting!), and there’s a pleasing contrapuntal structure to the book that gently mimics the music it describes. (Garreth Brooke)
Janice Galloway ~ Clara (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
This beautiful fictionalized biography of Clara Schumann contains some glorious descriptions of music and is a convincing attempt to get inside the minds of Clara, one of the most famous pianists of her day, and her composer husband Robert, whose struggles with mental illness caused much distress and led to his early death. It corrects a historical injustice by placing Clara back in the foreground—Robert also gained some fame during his lifetime, but over the 20th century his reputation grew while hers faded—and does a fantastic job of bringing this now-distant time to life. (Garreth Brooke)
Kyle Gann ~ No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” (Yale University Press, 2010)
Is this a book about nothing? Not in the hands of Kyle Gann, nor in those of John Cage, whose four minutes and thirty-three seconds of not playing the piano opened an entire discussion on sound and silence. The point, of course, is that there is no such thing as silence; in an anechoic chamber, Cage was frightened by the sound of his own body, and in concert, attendees became aware of ambient sounds around them. The book covers the piece, the life, and the ever-expanding conversation. For a fully immersive experience, we suggest quiet reading. (Richard Allen)
Jennie Gottschalk ~ Experimental Music Since 1970 (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Like so many of our favorite books on music, Experimental Music Since 1970 was written by an author who is also a composer/performer. Framed as something of an unofficial sequel to Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (1974), Gottshalk picks up where that book closes. Beyond producing an updated state of the field, Gottschalk also confronts historiographic omissions, providing an overdue attention to non-male and non-Western artists, including emerging and lesser-known artists in addition to canonical figures. Confronting definitional difficulties head on, Gottschalk’s encyclopedic survey eschews categorization based on “tools, notation, technology, or musical techniques,” arguing that “these categories to be red herrings when it comes to identifying experimental qualities. The fundamental issue is not what tools are used, but how they are directed.” Rather than a unified theory of experimentalism, then, she instead offers a dizzying proliferation of approaches. This focus on process results in groupings according to resonance, harmony, objects, perception, sites, and histories. (Joseph Sannicandro)
David Grubbs ~ Now That the Audience Is Assembled (2018)
Now That the Audience Is Assembled is a book-length prose poem that conveys the feeling of witnessing the live performance of experimental music. Grubbs imagines a fictional performance utilizing imagined instruments which provoke a variety of audience responses, from deep contemplative listening to inducing sleep. While Records Ruin the Landscape, Grubbs’ exploration of the impact that recording has had on experimental and improvised musics, is another favorite, Assembled is especially notable for insisting that the audience is an equally important part of the circuit of performance. More than a study of music, this book manifests as an aesthetic experience in its own right, as an imaginative and poetic form of writing. Grubbs’ often humorous literary speculation, rooted firmly in his own experience as a prolific musician and critic, touches upon musical categories, performance, scores, instruments, aesthetic deskilling and reskilling, and the relation between improvisation and composition. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Special thanks to Bookcase in Carlisle for letting us photograph their shelves. Visit them here.