Discover more from Songs of Sunrise
Essential Music Reading
20(ish) music books everyone should read
I very often get asked what books I recommend if somebody wants to study classical music at university, or start reading books about musicology more broadly. So this is a list of books that I think are great as an introduction to studying classical music. I haven’t chosen these books because I necessarily agree with everything that is written in them, but because when I’ve taught foundational university music classes I’ve found these readings have been good starting points for discussion. For that reason I’ve paired books that complement each other particularly well as debate-starters.
With any reading list, the most important thing is how you read the books — what questions do they raise? How/Does it change how you think about this particular topic? Why have authors made the choices they have? What omissions have they made? What are the consequences of that? What do you still want to know having finished the book? I’ve included some questions to consider with each book.
There are some books on this list that aren’t books about music, per se. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Some of the most exciting and game-changing insights in musicology have come from people taking knowledge from other areas and applying them to music. So I always encourage anyone wanting to study music to enjoy a wide range of reading!
Where I can, I’ve prioritised books that are are easy to source through local libraries or second-hand at relatively affordable prices. Not all books conform to this rule, but I’ve tried to keep the list as accessible and wide-ranging as possible. If people are keen to find out more about a particular topic, let me know in the comments! I’m happy to give further recommendations. I want to write posts that are useful for folks, so please also let me know in the poll whether or not you enjoy book recommendations and would like me to post more here.
Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction; Nicholas Cook & Mark Everist (eds.), Rethinking Music
Starting with the basics, Music: A Very Short Introduction is an opening text that lives up to its title, laying out what some of the key debates in the field have been. When you have finished that and want to go into more depth on a wide range of subjects, dip into Rethinking Music. This is by now quite an old book, but it gives a snapshot of questions that were important to the field when it was written. It’s really useful to be able to refer back to as you work through this list — why were these topics chosen as important? How have writers built on the ideas in this book? How have priorities changed? What are the ideas in this book that most interest you? Why? Conversely, what interests you that is not discussed here?
Tia DeNora, Beethoven and the Construction of Genius; Christine Battersby, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics
‘Genius’ is a really fraught term in arts subjects. These books open up questions about who gets to be called a ‘genius’, and why. DeNora’s book focuses on one of the most famous composers in classical music, examining why he’s been considered so important. Battersby’s book roves more broadly, looking at how ideas about gender and genius intersect. How have ideas about genius formed? How has that shaped who has been studied — and who hasn’t?
Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise; Kate Molleson, Sound Within Sound; E. H. Carr, What is History?; Helen Carr & Suzannah Lipscomb (eds.), What is History, Now?
For thinking about writing music history, What is History? is a classic; What is History, Now? reflects on the questions historians are thinking about 60 years after What is History? was published. Then to go to music more specifically, Ross and Molleson are a great place to start if you want to get into twentieth-century music. These authors have completely different visions, narratives, and focuses. How do the people they choose to write about change the story they tell? Who or what is prioritised in each book? How does writing style shape how the story is told? If you want some follow-on reading, dip into the volume of Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music that most interests you, and make sure to read the introduction. What do you make of this text, especially after reading all the above?
Nicholas Cook, A Guide to Musical Analysis; Elisabeth Le Guin, Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology; Ric Knowles, How Theatre Means
Music analysis is a huge, ever-expanding subject. What constitutes music analysis, and what the point of it is, has been hotly debated in recent years. At the core, these books are about how we derive meaning from music (or, in Knowles’ case, theatre — I’ve included his book here for a perspective on how another field deals with analysis). What do you think the point of music analysis is? What are we analysing when we analyse “music”? How is meaning created through music? What are the analytical approaches that most excite you? How might these approaches shape how you think about some of your favourite pieces?
Vikram Seth, An Equal Music; James Runcie, The Great Passion; and Jacqueline Crooks, Fire Rush
I love setting fiction books and films about music. What might we learn about music from fiction? These are all very different books, but they talk about music in really interesting ways. How do these writers make music part of their narrative? What kind of stories do they tell about music? What “truths” do these books hold? Are they different from the kinds of “truths” in non-fiction books about the same genres? What are the differences/similarities in the way that different genres of music are dealt with by these authors? The Crooks also has an accompanying Spotify playlist, so do look that out as you read.
Ruth Solie (ed.), Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship; Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas (eds.), Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology; and bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics
These texts are a great way into thinking about music, gender, and sexuality. The Solie and Brett/Wood/Thomas are edited collections of essays on different topics (again, like Rethinking Music, relatively old now), and the hooks is a feminist manifesto. What has “feminist musicology” been, and what might it be in the future? What does it mean to be a “feminist” musicologist? How are music and gender related? How are music and sexuality related? Can music sound “masculine”? How is music involved in the articulation of sexual desire?
Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans: A History; Kira Thurman, Singing Like Germans: Black Musicians in the Land of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms; Jennifer Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening
These are foundational texts for thinking about music and race. Southern and Thurman’s books are more historically focused, Stoever’s more theoretical. How are music and race related? Do these books make you think differently about other music books you’ve read? How might they inform your own listening? What are the documents of music history — how do the documents we choose shape the story we tell?
Music and Biography
For better or worse, a lot of the study of classical music has been based around composers and their works, so biography has been a crucial genre in musicology. I’d recommend picking a couple of composers whose work you love, reading a biography about them, and engaging critically with it. (If there isn’t a biography of your chosen composer, or it’s very hard to get hold of, that’s useful information and an important discussion topic already!) If you don’t know where to begin you can always read my own Quartet about Ethel Smyth, Rebecca Clarke, Dorothy Howell and Doreen Carwithen. Some other potential starters include:
The Cambridge Companions series is also a good way in to thinking about famous composers. These aren’t biographies, but are collections of essays that put composers in their cultural context and offer a critical introduction to their music. Or, try BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week for in-depth intros to composers alongside snippets of their music. I also recommend following writers like Samantha Ege, A. Kori Hill, Imani Mosley, Marian Wilson Kimber and Douglas Shadle, all of whom are active on social media/Substack posting about the work that they do.
Thanks for reading Songs of Sunrise! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.