These are the four best books on music I’ve read over the last year.
The Musical Human
Michael Spitzer’s The Musical Human is a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of the relationship between music and the human species. As professor of music at the University of Liverpool, he takes the reader on a remarkable musical journey across the world and across time, from Bach to Babylonians, bone flutes to BTS. And The Beatles get the odd look in too. The book takes a wide-ranging interdisciplinary approach, drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, along with other domains, providing a truly comprehensive understanding of the role of music in human development. Spitzer is an excellent writer, and his prose is clear, engaging, and often very entertaining, making complex ideas accessible to the general reader, without ever sacrificing depth or rigour. The book makes you think about music very differently.
Sounds Like London
And Lloyd Bradley makes you think about London very differently. Sounds Like London is a vividly told, comprehensive history of black music in the city. It tells the story of how black music has shaped the city’s culture and identity with writing that is clear, passionate and supported with some great research. He powerfully weaves together personal stories of musicians with their social, political and historical context, showing how black music has been both a form of protest and resistance, as well as a source of celebration and joy — from jazz and calypso to grime. Along the way he shares the sadly neglected story of the rather wonderful BritFunk. The book is packed with great stories, all told with a passion and an almost encyclopaedic mastery of the subject. What’s the connection between calypso and Captain Scarlet? This book tells you.
Jackie Kay discovered the music of Bessie Smith at the age of twelve from her father: “a Scottish Communist who loved the blues.” That was enough to pull me into this wonderfully written, insightful biography of the legendary blues singer. She brings Smith’s life to life in all its complexity, exploring the singer’s struggles with poverty, racism and addiction, and her triumph over adversity. Kay’s writing is evocative and lyrical. I also appreciated the way the writer weaves together Smith’s personal story with the history of the blues, providing a rich and contextualised understanding of her life and work. The author’s own personal connection to Smith’s story, as a black woman who grew up in Scotland, made the book particularly powerful. Overall, it underlined why I should read more by Jackie Kay.
The Sound of Being Human
I loved every page of this beautifully written book. Jude Rogers explores the power of music in our lives, weaving together her own personal story with scientific research and cultural analysis, to create a hugely moving, thought-provoking portrait of the human relationship with music. The book is divided into thirteen chapters, each of which is based on a specific song and explores a different aspect of the power of music, as related to her own life. She writes about how music helps us to process grief, connect with others, find our identity, and generally make sense of the world, and our place in it. Her stories are beautifully told, while giving some critical insights on how to write about music. You could base an entire creative writing course around her chapter How Music Makes (Some) People Write. The way she writes about specific songs, in particular Among Angels by Kate Bush, is simply a masterclass in both how to write and, perhaps above all, how to listen. A truly wonderful read that inspires you to map the tracks of your own life. And to try to write a little better. The only downside is that there will be few surprises in her Desert Island Discs.