The 40 Best Books On Music ~ Part Two

Welcome to the second part of our choices for the 40 best books on music. If you’ve read the first half (or had a cheeky scroll down the page), you will have noticed that our selections cast the net wide, from cultural theory to novels, from autobiographies to examinations of genre. The scope of the writers runs wide as well. A number of these books were written by musicians, some by journalists, and others by fans who let their enthusiasm spill out into a full-length publication. We have almost certainly omitted your favourite from our list – please let us (and other readers) know in the comments.

While we have your attention, we will point out that we’ve tried to make all the information here as accurate as possible but there will no doubt be human error. Unless there have been major revisions to the text, we’ve stuck with the original date and publisher – there is a good chance later editions have appeared under a different imprint. Also, rights issues means that if a book is published in a different territory it will have a different publisher. Finally, the cover we have used below might be different to the one you are familiar with. Again, this comes down to different publishers changing and revising designs. As it is much more expensive to change the text within than the cover, this is usually just a cosmetic change – and it is the contents that matter, right?

There’s more to follow in the next two days, so happy reading!

Douglas Hofstadter ~ Gödel, Esher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1979)
Strictly speaking, this Pulitzer Prize-winner is not a book about music—it’s a book about human cognition—but Bach’s music and the thoughts that inspired it are featured very prominently and are beautifully written. The comparisons drawn to mathematician Gödel and artist Esher are profound, exciting, and at times very difficult to comprehend; you’ll be left feeling both inspired and aware of your limits. (Garreth Brooke)

Robert Jourdain ~ Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination (William Morrow and Company, 1997)
Why do we like what we like?  The somewhat disappointing answer is that most of us gain a musical preference in middle school based on what our friends like, and we never change.  Once we’ve dissected that nugget, we’re free to travel through the rest of the book, learning how music can trigger memories in the elderly, why some sounds attract us and others repel us, and what human music sounds like to other members of the animal kingdom. Quotable at every corner, the book holds up as well now as it did when first published. (Richard Allen)

Bernie Krause ~ The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wildest Places (Little, Brown and Company, 2012)
Bernie Krause is one of the world’s most accomplished field recording artists.  He’s earned this title through his travels to dangerous and uncharted territories from Africa to the Amazon.  Krause seeks to hear the unadulterated music of flora and fauna, and makes a plea for their preservation.  The lessons are applicable as close as our own backyards.  We learn how species claim sonic bandwidths for safety, how the loss of one sound can affect an entire habitat, and how noise pollution affects the soundscape, and much, much more. (Richard Allen)

George Lewis ~ A Power Stronger Than Itself (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Lewis’ massive, unsurpassable history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is a must-read. His influential 1996 article, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” argues that the European tradition sets up a definition of improvisation that excludes history and memory, a whitening that refuses to see itself as engaged in an ethono-nationalistic project. This gets further developed in A Power Stronger Than Itself in the service of providing a much needed historical overview of the AACM, which began in Chicago in 1965 and continues to this day. Lewis joined the organization in 1971 while still a teenager, a relationship that allows for an insider perspective that still maintains some distance from the founders. From Chicago to Paris to New York and beyond, the members of the AACM produce radical, boundary obliterating music that continues to inspire and confound. Drawing on theory and practice, interviews and critical analysis of the music press, and of course the music itself, Lewis’ book is essential to understanding creative music in America. (Joseph Sannicandro)

John Mauceri ~ For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening (Knopf, 2019)
Obviously we love the subtitle, but the rest of the book is just as good!  A conductor sees things from a fuller perspective than a member of the orchestra, and Mauceri is a master at the art of listening.  On the one hand, the book falls into the category of music appreciation; on the other, it’s a book of joy.  We learn much more than the art of the conductor; we learn about the author’s life, his journey through music, and the appeal of sounds that were composed before we were born. (Richard Allen)

Pauline Oliveros ~ Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80 (Smith Publications, 1984)
Even the most truncated version of Pauline Oliveros’ accomplishments would overflow this space. Suffice to say that her work as a composer, performer, teacher, and founder of Deep Listening have solidified her place in the canon. Oliveros developed new tools and techniques for the production of electronic music, imbuing the practice of improvisation with the principles of meditation and ritual. Her writings remain an essential means of transmission for her ideas, as well as a historical snapshot of her evolution as a thinker and musician. The unique square format of this book reflects the singularity of its contents, containing 26 articles on a range of subjects: technical matters (“”Tape Delay Techniques for Electronic Music Composition”), poetry (“Dialogue with Basho”), philosophical concerns (“The Noetics of Music”), fellow composers (“Alvin Lucier”), a defense of institutionalization (“On the need for Research Facilities”), and polemics against the persistent misogyny within music (“And Don’t Call Them ‘Lady’ Composers”). (Joseph Sannicandro)

Benjamin Piekut ~ Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (University of California Press, 2011)
Experimentalism Otherwise proposes a radical rethinking of avant-garde as a network of contestation, dispute, and exclusion, tracing the limits of “experimentalism” as a category as it relates to matters of race, gender, politics, and sexual orientation. Piekut focuses on four separate events that all occurred in New York City in 1964 — John Cage’s disastrous collaboration with the Philharmonic, Henry Flynt’s militant protests against the avant-garde, Charlotte Moorman’s Avant Garde Festival, and the founding of the Jazz Composers Guild. Piekut’s critique of Cage’s partitioning of his “aleatory” techniques from improvisation is a welcome intervention, demonstrating one of the many ways that canonical figures and institutions have worked to segregate the contributions of black musicians from the history of American experimentalism. All the more necessary is the attention to the Jazz Composers Guild and the important contributions of the black radical tradition more broadly. A fascinating coda on Iggy Pop following the threads of experimentalism out of New York as they took root in a rock vernacular. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Tara Rodgers ~ Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound (Duke University Press, 2010)
Pink Noises is an essential collection of 24 interviews with women working in electronic music and sound (“including club and radio DJs, remixers, composers, improvisers, instrument builders, and installation and performance artists”). Rodgers began Pink Noises as a blog in 2000 “to promote women in electronic music and make information about music production more accessible to women and girls.” The opening chapter sketches a feminist historiography of electronic music, demonstrates that the tools we use are far from neutral, and highlights the tropes that have been repeated and naturalized in the service of canonizing male figures. Pushing back against this history, Rodgers’ subjects (including Pauline Oliveros, Eliane Radigue, Mira Calix, and Maria Chavez among many others) are given space to tell their own stories. The opening essay will satisfy those looking for a theoretical account, while the interview transcript format ensures that the book remains readable and accessible to a wider audience. (Joseph Sannicandro)

Alex Ross ~ The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)
While many of the books on this list were chosen because of their subject matter, this one was chosen because of the beauty of its writing. In essence, The Rest Is Noise is a book length music review, filled with unique insights and turns of phrase.  While the book centers on classical music, there’s something here for everybody, an “a-ha” moment around every corner. It’s hard enough to discern what an album may be saying, much less a century, but Ross succeeds in this ambitious excursion. (Richard Allen)

David Rothenberg ~ Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books, 2008)
No matter what readers thing of the author “dueting” with whales on clarinet (he later attempts the same thing with birds), Rothenberg’s coverage of whale song is consistently intriguing, a strong case for the protection of all whale species and an exercise in humility.  He writes of whales that swim around continents in order to share new songs, the story of humans attempting to decipher whale song, and the stunning intelligence of the world’s largest creatures.  Songs of the Humpback Whale was only the beginning. (Richard Allen)

R. Murray Schafer ~ The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Destiny Books, 1993)
Today’s soundscape is too noisy; the air is filled with planes, the streets with hawkers, the home and workplace with phones and other electronic devices.  Oh, wait, Schafer wrote this thirty years ago and invented the term “soundscape.”  To read is to weep, but also to appreciate the value of taking sound walks not only in installations, but in one’s own neighborhood.  A pioneering work of enduring value, The Soundscape can now be called visionary.  (Richard Allen)

Vikram Seth ~ An Equal Music (Vintage, 1999)
The glowing language of this novel comes closer than any other book to capturing what it feels like to make music: to use your body, mind, and soul to create something that is on the one hand “just music” and on the other hand far more profound than you can express. The plot, a failed romance between a violinist and a pianist, and the related subplot of the violinist losing the right to play “his” violin, is enjoyable but not life-changing, but the descriptions are extraordinarily powerful. (Garreth Brooke)

Paul Sullivan ~ Waking Up In Iceland (Sanctuary Publishing, 2003)
At a certain point in my musical journey, I realized that almost all of my favorite musical acts came from Iceland. This book traces the early evolution of Iceland’s crossover success, covering not only the expected accented acts (Björk, Múm, Sigur Rós) and the invention of Iceland Airwaves, but what makes Icelandic music so consistently different from the music of other countries. The book was written before the nation became such a tourist destination, and as such is filled with the wonder of discovery. (Richard Allen)

Harry Sword ~ Monolithic Undertow: In Search Of Sonic Oblivion (White Rabbit, 2021)
When Harry Sword began thinking about this book, he was going to look at noise – the impact of volume from, say, a metal band. He was soon drawn to the underlying drone that many of the loudest bands use and worked his way back – and forwards – from there. Beginning with neolithic burial chambers, Sword examines the evidence that creating a drone was the earliest attempt at making music and often tied in with religious ceremonies. Monolithic Undertow, therefore, takes us from Om (‘to Buddhists and Hindus alike… the sound of the universe’) to Om (‘[continuing] the mystic, quasi-religious vibe of Sleep’) in a couple of hundred pages. Sword is an enthusiastic writer and the book fairly barrels along toward the end with mentions of recent drone practitioners, a chapter which includes Sarah Davachi and Richard Skelton. (Jeremy Bye)

Greg Tate ~ Flyboy in the Buttermilk (Simon & Schuster, 1992)
The late Greg Tate (1957-2021) was, among many other things, a guitarist and leader of the improvised music ensemble Burnt Sugar. But above all Greg Tate was a writer. Like many of the authors on this list, Tate’s experiences as a musician influenced his writing, but he could do things with words unlike anybody else. As a critic for The Village Voice, NYC’s famed alt-weekly, Tate developed his own unique voice, dizzily weaving between the highbrow locution of the critic and the vernacular of the street. Flyboy in the Buttermilk consists of 40 essays on culture and politics drawn from the previous decade of work. It’s a testament to Tate’s singular brilliance that these essays hold up more than three decades later. Essays include celebration (and critique) of Public Enemy, Samuel Delany’s science fiction, reflections on Amiri Baraka, William Gibson’s cyberpunk, what’s wrong with Michael Jackson, and the street influenced art of Ramm-El-Zee and Basquiat. This is how you do it. (Joseph Sannicandro)

David Toop ~ Ocean Of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (Serpent’s Tail, 1995)
Beginning with the moment Claude Debussy hears the Javanese gamelan for the first time, Toop follows the hidden pathways and undercurrents of music in the twentieth century. It isn’t all about ambient music in the normal sense; however, the majority of the music, and the story, occurs in the background while mainstream attention was elsewhere. Parts of Ocean Of Sound read like a futuristic travelog, sitting alongside a William Gibson novel or an epic Wim Wenders road movie. Toop wanders through an electronic rainforest, picking out budding new ideas and presenting them as fresh opportunities and directions. Many of the writers at ACL find this an inspirational book with good reason. It nudged us away from what we had been listening to and towards new possibilities. Ocean Of Sound draws multiple musical elements into focus and consequently the world finally begins to make sense. Need we say any more? (Jeremy Bye)

Cosey Fanni Tutti ~ Art Sex Music (Faber & Faber, 2017)
Part of a wave of autobiographies by women – Kim Gordon’s and Viv Albertine’s were also published around the same time – that demonstrated a genuine desire by readers to skip past the hoary old rock ‘n’ roll stories and engage with a different kind of narrative. Cosey Fanni Tutti was a member of Throbbing Gristle (described as the ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by a Conservative MP) and then formed the electronic duo Chris & Cosey with partner Chris Carter. It is still relatively rare to hear the struggles of a female musician in a male-dominated environment; Cosey has kept a diary since her teenage years. She quotes extracts from her younger self throughout, and they provide a contrast to Cosey as narrator. Cosey was a pioneering artist and musician, but was probably content with remaining on the margins – arguably, Art Sex Music gave her a higher profile than she had experienced for years. An inspiring story. (Jeremy Bye)

Eliot Wilder ~ Endtroducing [33 1/3 Series] (Continuum, 2005)
There are over 170 volumes in the ongoing 33 1/3 series. The concept is straightforward enough: a writer selects an album to write about but has free reign on the approach. So the books can vary from an appraisal of a local music scene to a deconstruction of a genre – and all points in between. Occasionally they read like the dry sleevenotes in a boxed set rather than anything fresh and insightful but you will still learn something. A key attraction of these books is their brevity: you can be informed and entertained while you play the album in question two or three times. Unfortunately, there’s not much cross-over between the 33 1/3 selections and ACL’s preferred genres (hey, maybe we should write one!). But a fine introduction is Endtroducing which essentially is an extended interview with DJ Shadow himself. With the best volumes in the series, it’s like listening to the record with a fresh pair of ears. (Jeremy Bye)

Val Wilmer ~ As Serious As Your Life (Allison & Busby, 1977)
It’s remarkable that this book was even published, as in 1977 free jazz was a marginalised genre (even more than today), and fusion was the comparative mainstream. Val Wilmer had her first articles on jazz published in the late 1950s, but she is arguably best known for her photographs of the musicians about whom she was writing. She knew the people she profiled in As Serious As Your Life, which gives the book an added level of insight that a later writer would have missed. The central section features musicians, mainly drummers, who struggle to balance the need to play with the need to put food on the table. It’s a shame few people were listening at the time. As a portrait of often overlooked characters who found themselves depressingly underappreciated, it’s unparalleled. (Jeremy Bye)

Rob Young (Editor) ~ The Wire Primers (Verso, 2009)
It’s a concept that feels somewhat dated now: articles from The Wire magazine were, for a time, compiled into books. Invisible Jukebox collected interviews from the most popular feature in the magazine – one that still appears every month, and had a make-over during the pandemic as musical partnerships tested each other. The Primer appears less frequently but is a boon to anyone trying to find their way into forbidding areas of music. Are you wondering where to start with Derek Bailey, Sonic Youth, Fela Kuti or – oh yes – John Cage? Then let The Primer guide you through. When the series began, you would need a leap of faith if you were going to hunt down the records featured. You would have to borrow them off a friend or persuade a friendly record shop employee to spin them for you. With streaming services providing greater accessibility to music, The Wire Primers remain a useful guide; if you can’t find this book, venture into The Wire’s own archive of back issues. (Jeremy Bye)

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