Comprehensiveness rating: 4 read less
To assemble a comprehensive survey of Western art music in a single introductory volume of modest size is an impossible task, and I applaud the effort to make such a text available in a format that avoids the usual sticker shock. But in its present form, this attempt is jargon-heavy and moves at a breezy pace with little time for reflection or subtlety.
As is the case with many music appreciation texts, the title makes no mention of the book’s focus on Western classical tradition(s). The brief excursions into popular music, folk music, and world music are exceptions that only reinforce the Western orientation.
The introductory chapter is unavoidably superficial as it attempts to incorporate the perspectives of physics, physiology, and psychology, while touching briefly on Western conventions of culture, notation, timbre, form, and instrumentation, as well as building a vocabulary to describe dynamics, articulation, intervals, pitch names, electronics, and recording. The important matter of calling attention to the immediacy of the listening experience is sidelined in this well-intentioned effort to be inclusive of multiple academic disciplines, and to be rather detailed about terminology specific to literate European musical traditions.
The text provides convenient links to listening opportunities — the majority curated from YouTube — but at times these amount to an avalanche of hastily examined examples. In the exploration of folk and world music, these examples are weighted towards the commercial side of things.
Some mention of performers (and performance practice) and listeners (and reception history) would be helpful additions to the historical narrative focused on composers and styles.
The book (and each individual chapter) provides a glossary, but it lacks an index or page references attached to the definitions that would connect back to relevant passages in the text.
Accuracy rating: 3
Too often, technical terms are introduced without definitions, or the definitions lack precision. For example, on p. 16 the term “tri-tone” is used without definition and it does not appear in the glossary, nor again later in the book. The paragraph on p. 17 about key and scale is an example of vagueness and imprecision.
The reference on p. 57 to Gutenberg’s press misses the significance of his invention (movable type), and I question the accuracy of subsequent claims regarding the “decline of the church in the arts as well as music,” the idea that Luther ushered in the Renaissance, and the notion that the humanist movement produced “art and music for the vast middle class population.” Nearby, there is also a confused reference to “edge bounding.” (?) On p. 74 the authors claim that 18th c. opera stars were followed by paparazzi!
These are examples of a carelessness that too often creeps in to the narrative, and I am concerned that students will be led astray or muddled.
Relevance/Longevity rating: 3
The approach taken by this text is a familiar and enduring one, but many institutions and faculty are looking for alternatives to teaching music appreciation as a "music history lite" course. The legitimacy of being (or aspiring to be) "comprehensive" is also under scrutiny.
Clarity rating: 2
Musicians, like any specialists, can easily become unaware of the specialized vocabulary that they routinely use, or of the specific meanings they attach to commonly used words. For example, in this book the terms “sharp” and “flat” are introduced without explanation, and musical notation is routinely used to make points that will be lost on any students lacking aural skills grounded in musical literacy.
I am concerned that most students (even experienced musicians) would be confused by the diagrams on pp. 5-6; here, visual representations of a piano keyboard and of fractional string vibrations appear adjacent to verbal descriptions that can easily lead to misconceptions. (The seven letters of the “musical alphabet” are introduced next to a diagram illustrating the first seven partials, but these are completely different sets of pitches. The text reads: “Our musical alphabet consists of seven letters repeated over and over again in correspondence with these overtones.” The meaning here is unclear, but it is certainly misstated. Additionally, the term “partial” is incorrectly defined in the glossary; the fundamental is the first partial, whereas the first overtone is an octave above the fundamental. Unfortunately, the text uses the terms “overtone” and “partial” interchangeably and uses rather detailed (intimidating) musical notation to present them.
Other potentially confusing presentations include the blues progression diagram and accompanying text on p. 19, which doesn’t indicate the fact that the progression returns to the tonic because it is repeated. The language on p. 122 offers a few more examples of obscurity, in that “antecedent/consequent phrasing” is undefined, the description “flexible deployment of rhythm and rests” is rather too nuanced, and the terms “crescendo/decrescendo” and “opus” are used without explanation.
Consistency rating: 2
I think the book lacks a coherent lens, unless it is the frequently stated idea that music composition is grounded in its historical context. But this perspective is not pursued with any systematic integrity or rigor. For example, an extensive section at the beginning of the Baroque chapter outlines contemporaneous developments in science, philosophy, visual art, literature, politics, exploration — but the claimed influences of these subjects are never integrated into the musical discussion. The introductory pages to the Classical chapter do a better job of integration, but they include some over-simplifications and distortions. The discussion of Romanticism includes a summary of philosophy that is too breezy and jargon-laden to be meaningful, or to shed light on musical experiences.
A simple but helpful addition to the text would be to insure that the names of historical figures are consistently accompanied by their dates at first mention.
Modularity rating: 4
The book is presented in sections of reasonable length, with clear headings and subheadings to delineate the structure. Listening guides are formatted consistently, although they often lack index timings.
The book would benefit from cross references to passages where essential terms and topics are addressed elsewhere in the book.
Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 4
The conventional chronology of a historical survey is adhered to. Although this approach limits the possibilities for a broader examination of musical genre or function, it has its definite merits in coherence.
Interface rating: 3
Some of the Internet links may have copyright or longevity issues; for instance:
p. 23— Ellington video has been taken down
p. 215—a link intended to take us to La Traviata goes to Hildegard instead
p. 221—the intended clip begins 14’ into the linked video
p. 293—Ravi Shankar video is blocked
p. 295—Indonesian gong music is unavailable.
The links on p. 16 to a collection of videos produced by the authors do not work.
Grammatical Errors rating: 3
The quality and tone of the writing is uneven, and there are frequently misspellings, poor constructions, and opaque sentences. Introductory books demand a high level of precision, and all texts should model exemplary writing.
Cultural Relevance rating: 3
I applaud the inclusion of popular music, but it is presented in an avalanche of superficially examined examples that do not give enough attention to matters of race, class, and gender. For that matter, the text as a whole avoids discussion of these topics.
The appendix that addresses world music seems remarkably out of touch with the international nature of most contemporary music with which many students are already familiar. Also, the distinctions between folk, pop, and art music that are presented at the beginning of the text are missing here. Instead, the music in this section is all lumped together as music of “others,” without acknowledging that the examples intersperse commercialized, modernized, vernacular, and traditional versions.
It may not qualify as a matter of inclusivity/exclusivity, but the text offers a rather unsympathetic presentation of avant-garde languages, including atonality, serialism, and music that the authors describe as “noise” vs. “harmonious sounds.”
I respect the effort that went into putting this extensive book together, including locating numerous open source images and diagrams. I value the contribution that the authors have made in providing a no-cost alternative to commercially published texts. My comments are intended to direct the attention of would-be adopters to aspects that they may (or may not) want to addressor supplement or modify as they prepare their courses.
Comprehensiveness rating: 4 read less
The book's main chapters provide a overview and history of music in the western world; starting with an introductory chapter about the 'fundamental' of music and proceeding chronologically from the music of the middle ages through popular music in the US in the 20th century.
Work outside the western canon is briefly notated in appendix entries.
Accuracy rating: 5
The provides a reliable guide to the musical periods and movements, personalities and forms it covers.
It may be served with a chapter that details the beginning of western music and it's history prior to the Middle Ages.
Relevance/Longevity rating: 5
Given that the provides a historical overview of western music form from the Middle Ages onward, the book has relevance and longevity. While new research might lead to new understanding of specific aspects, the book is a useful text with little danger of obsolescence.
Clarity rating: 5
Newcomers to the field will certainly find the style of the book clear and accessible; the book makes excellent use of hypertext examples to illustrate the ideas and concepts discussed. More advanced students will find much to appreciate in the book's clarity and depth.
Consistency rating: 5
The book employs a framework that successfully blends the work of its four editors into a coherent, consistent whole.
Modularity rating: 5
Chapters are organized with sub-sections; it effectively breaks up the larger chapter topic into smaller, more 'digestible' units that can be easily assigned and/or focused on.
Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 5
Understanding Music begins with an introductory chapter guiding the reader through the major components of music; melody, harmony, etc., then proceeds with a historical, chronologically examination of western music from the Middles Ages onwards. The organization of the book is thus straightforward and familiar.
Interface rating: 5
The book utilizes a familiar and effective method of presenting information; chapters begins with a listing of objectives and vocabulary. Illustrations are presented clearly, along with hypertext links to materials on thew web.
Grammatical Errors rating: 5
The book employs standard academic syntax and grammar.
Cultural Relevance rating: 4
The book's focus is on western music and culminates in a final chapter on pop music in the United States. It is inclusive to the extent that the music of the places and periods covered is connected to "music" as a whole.
Non-western music is briefly included in the extensive appendix.
Readers looking for an overview or comprehensive treatment of music from the rest of the world would be best served by other books
Understanding Music is a comprehensive and useful examination of the music of the western world.