Review: Music — A Very Short Introduction

Music: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cook


I have three months left at my noble institution (emphasis on the institution), so I’m pulling as many academic and bizarre texts from my school’s library as humanly possible. Not knowing exactly where I’ll be come fall is nerve-wracking for the usual reasons (who I am going to see The Desolation of Smaug with?), but I also have no idea what kind of libraries I’ll have access to. My last raid on my school library yielded up this interesting little number; given its short length, I figured it would be a good way to get started with Operation: Academic Library Panic.

Music: A Very Short Introduction is part of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, which aims to provide short, accessible, and thoughtful introductions to a range of subjects, from epidemiology to developmental biology to game theory to, of course, music. Here, Nicholas Cook discusses how the West thinks of music, per our traditions that date back to the cult of personality around Beethoven, the various frameworks Western thinking has created to think about music, and the way that improves it. And all in a little over one hundred pages—Oxford’s not kidding when it comes to the title of the series.

My history with music is… well, weird and painful. I started piano lessons at the age of eight; soon thereafter, realizing that I was not a musical person by any stretch of the imagination, I asked my mother if I could do something that I actually enjoyed instead. My piano teacher consequently shamed me into continuing, with a speech about how lucky I was to be even able to play the piano—she taught disabled kids piano as well, and this able-bodied girl wanted to stop because she didn’t feel like it? How ungrateful can you get? Upon reflection, that’s a really messed up thing to say to a fifth-grader, but it was enough to guilt me into continuing. My lone act of rebellion was to spitefully repress everything (I was an astonishingly angry kid), which was helped by the fact I was taught little to no musical theory. Setting my personal issues aside (seriously, who says something like that to a kid?), this convoluted history with the stuff made me believe that the only way I could begin to understand music was to start with the absolute basics of music theory. As an adult trying to get a handle on the medium, I picked this up because I thought it was going to talk about that.

But that focus on theory above everything else is something that Cook questions. What Music: A Very Short Introduction does is interrogate how we conceive of and think of music, especially the ways that are supposedly natural. The theory-first focus I absorbed because I thought that was somehow the key to “solve” the medium for me is one that emphasizes music as “something you know” versus “something you do” (104). It privileges composition, the song as an object unto itself, above performance and definitely above appreciation, and that’s why I felt that I had to learn music theory before I could “properly” appreciate, say, New Wave. (I don’t even know sometimes.) Cook destabilizes this notion by pointing out the effort that goes into constructing an “authoritative” edition of a song and then stating that there’s no way that, say, Chopin meant to create a definitive version of one of his pieces. Obviously, this applies only in the case of artists who are dead and whose intentions are gone to us, but I could feel my horizons expanding when faced with the idea that the real song is the performance, not the composition. The last chapter of the book focuses on music and gender, and points out that the reason many women are left out of books about Western music is because their involvement in music was so often performing it (most Regency women were expected to be able to play), not writing it, and simply performing wasn’t considered real musicianship. (There are some choice lines from eighteen-century composers complaining about the fact that performers are necessary for people to hear their music collected in here.)

Of course, Western music hasn’t been able to revolutionize that concept—instead, we’ve gone to praising authenticity in music, which essentially means that one should write and perform one’s own music, neatly sidestepping the idea that merely performing a song someone else has written isn’t creative. I mean, just think of the common jab, “She doesn’t even write her own music.” Cook even opens the book by discussing this concept of authenticity, “which places innovation above tradition, creation above reproduction, personal expression above the market-place” (14). If this is how we think of music in writing—yes, Cook quotes the oft-quoted Costello line about dancing about architecture—then this is how we’re constructing the way we think about music. But the gift of language is that we can construct another way of thinking about music, a way that respects all aspects of participation in music, from composing to performing to listening to it as the soundtrack to your life.

Being published in 1998 does mean that some of the few references to modern music can be dated, and I wonder how Cook would discuss a group like One Direction when discussing “synthetic” bands when he’s talking about authenticity. he does mention the Spice Girls, who have a similar manufactured beginning, but One Direction’s was televised. I also wonder how music piracy would affect how we think about music—does it say something about how we feel entitled to it? I’d be interested to know. All in all, I think I’m going to seek out more of these Very Short Introductions before I scuttle off to my uncertain future; this was a real eye-opener.

Bottom line: Music: A Very Short Introduction challenges the ways the West traditionally thinks about music, points out its flaws, and expands your mind. Well worth a read.

I rented this book from my school library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Music — A Very Short Introduction

  1. I don’t know if you can access the BBC’s iPlayer in the US, but Howard Goodall is presenting a very good series about music at the moment. It’s up to episode 4 and the late 19th century. He has focussed so far very much on Western music, but it’s a personal take on musical history which is really interesting.

  2. Pingback: Review: Rhetoric — A Very Short Introduction | The Literary Omnivore

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