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September 19, 2010

Sunday Book Thread

Good music-theory books are very hard to find. Perhaps it's because musicians and audiophiles tend to be less verbally-oriented than most. Beginner's books in particular are rare: most are either aimed at children, or are simple "put your hands here and do this" guides. Adult beginners are well-served by DVD and other video materials, but in terms of printed matter, it can be hard to know where to start.

I have found a few books over the years that have served me well in my quest to be a less-lousy musician, and since I'm the kind of person who needs to know theory as well as practice, my reading includes a lot of history and, well, theory in addition to the "how to" end of things.

One of my favorite general-interest music books is Aaron Copland's What To Listen For In Music. It was written in the 1930's and heavily revised in the 1950's, and remains an invaluable guide on that most essential musical skill: listening. It took me a long time to understand that you cannot play music well if you can't listen well. Listening must come first. Copland's book is full of good advice on how to listen to music (though of course because of its age it tends to focus on Jazz and classical music rather than rock or rap). Copland, as a composer himself, has some pretty deep insights on how to listen for structure and flow in music. This slim little book is invaluable.

For the basics of musical theory, the best book I've found (believe it or not) is Michael Miller's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music Theory. It's a fast and easy read, breaks down basic music theory into small chunks, and is really a superb way to ground yourself in music theory. For many musicians, this book may be the only theory book you need.

If you are a composer or a more advanced musician, you will probably want to dig deeper into the complexities of melody, harmony, and counterpoint. The standards in the field -- dense and academic, but very well-written and thorough -- are Walter Piston's much-revised Harmony and Counterpoint. (I don't know if I'd tackle these volumes as an amateur -- you might need a teacher to guide you.)

I think musicians ought to know their own history, because it can help them to develop their own music. There are lots of good genre-specific books out there -- too many to list -- but one recent book that impressed me is Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. For a subject as vast as 20th century American music, this book does a splendid job.

And finally, as I am an old-timey music kind of guy and the Carter Family (especially old A.P.) were the first nationally-popular musical act to work in this style, I enjoyed WIll You Miss Me When I'm Gone? a great deal. As a country-bluegrass guitarist, I venerate Mother Maybelle Carter as one of the founders of my craft! (I also ended up picking up the 5 Disc box set of their collected works just to refamiliarize myself with their work.)

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posted by Monty at 08:57 AM

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