The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization

The Story of Music: From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization

by Howard Goodall

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Music is an intrinsic part of everyday life, and yet the history of its development from single notes to multi-layered orchestration can seem bewilderingly complex.
In his dynamic tour through 40,000 years of music, from prehistoric instruments to modern-day pop, Howard Goodall leads us through the story of music as it happened, idea by idea, so that each musical


Music is an intrinsic part of everyday life, and yet the history of its development from single notes to multi-layered orchestration can seem bewilderingly complex.
In his dynamic tour through 40,000 years of music, from prehistoric instruments to modern-day pop, Howard Goodall leads us through the story of music as it happened, idea by idea, so that each musical innovation—harmony, notation, sung theater, the orchestra, dance music, recording—strikes us with its original force. Along the way, he also gives refreshingly clear descriptions of what music is and how it works: what scales are all about, why some chords sound discordant, and what all post-war pop songs have in common.
The story of music is the story of our urge to invent, connect, rebel—and entertain. Goodall’s beautifully clear and compelling account is both a hymn to human endeavor and a groundbreaking map of our musical journey.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this pedantic survey, composer Goodall ploddingly chronicles the innovations and inventions that have shaped the development of music (though classical music is the main focus). He presents some interesting facts—for example, the oldest list of musical instruments dates from 2600 BCE and a Mesopotamian clay tablet that lists various instruments, including the lyre, and provides instruction on playing a lute. In the Middle Ages, Guido of Arezzo came up with a method of notation to aid his choristers in singing songs, and Hildegard of Bingen “added ornamentation and melodic detail outside of the strict confines of standard method” as she composed her own chant tunes. He points out that by 1500 all the main families of musical instruments existed, and he traces briefly the ways that Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Wagner, Schoenberg, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, among others, influenced the development of music. (Jan.)
The Daily Telegraph
“Now comes Howard Goodall and everyone's prayers are answered. He starts right at the beginning, with 25,000-year-old bone flutes. A racily written, learned, and often shrewdly insightful book.”
The Sunday Times (London)
“A lively zip through some forty-five millennia, jumping back and forth between classical, folk, and pop.”
The Sunday TImes (London)
“A lively zip through some forty-five millennia, jumping back and forth between classical, folk, and pop.”
The Sunday Times - London
“A lively zip through some forty-five millennia, jumping back and forth between classical, folk, and pop.”
“With playlists for each chapter, this is a masterful and illuminating whirlwind tour through thousands of years of musical history.”
The Boston Globe
“Goodall's critical assessments are acute, balanced, and, as you might gather, sometimes provocative...His grasp of music's place in popular culture is astute. And his belief in the current 'convergence' of international pop, folk, and classical music is admirable.”
Library Journal
British composer Goodall (composer in residence, Classic FM, UK; Every Purpose Under the Heaven oratorio) tries his hand at popular music history with this volume. His focus on the Western classical tradition and popular music is understandable given his evident desire for brevity, but his rationale is curious and unsupported by his text. For instance, he frequently compares Western innovations to those of India and China while insisting that these innovations are unique. Goodall's musical knowledge is much in evidence and to be expected, given his substantial composing career; however, his historical notes (such as referring to the people of the Renaissance as "cruel, barbaric monsters" whose sole redeeming characteristic was their artistic endeavors) are frequently baffling. This reviewer found the musical analysis, while well informed, difficult to follow, and this with the aid of a degree in music. It is hard to see how the lay reader for whom this book is clearly intended would fare with the same content. For a thoughtful, close study of the interaction of music, human creativity, and civilization, David Byrne's How Music Works would be a better choice. VERDICT An interesting endeavor that falls short. For music listeners interested in Western classical and popular music.—Genevieve Williams, Pacific Lutheran Univ. Lib., Tacoma, WA
Kirkus Reviews
A celebrated British composer and broadcaster surveys the evolution and cultural significance of music, from prehistoric caves to Coldplay. There's been nothing too new under the sun about the fundamentals of music since about 1450, begins Goodall (Big Bangs: The Story of Five Discoveries That Changed Musical History, 2001). Then he whisks us back to caves and prehistoric instruments (flutes, whistles) and begins his swift journey through the centuries. He recognizes that the subject requires much inference until the ages of notation, print and recording, but he plunges bravely into the lake of darkness and manages some illumination. We pause to look at "the magic of musical pitch," the concepts of octaves and harmony, the invention of the musical staff (A.D. 1000), and the evolution of rhythm, chords, chord progressions, musical keys and tempo. Goodall also explores the invention and modification of significant instruments--the violin, organ, piano--and the creation of various musical forms--songs, operas, oratorios, sonatas (a subject that bores him, he writes). The big names retain their size in his account. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and myriads of others will surprise none by their presence and prominence. The author is also alert to the significance of popular music and has some passages about Broadway and the movies, blues, rock 'n' roll (whose origin he traces to Benny Goodman!), jazz and hip-hop. Goodall also discusses the effects of political systems on music and musicians--from pre-revolutionary France to Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union and others. The author continually reminds us of technological advances--print, recordings, radio, films--that enabled music to spread as never before. He does not like conventional terms for musical periods (e.g., Classical, Neo-Classical) but finds himself forced to use them occasionally. Cultural history with some attitude and considerable rhythm and melody.

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The Story of Music

From Babylon to the Beatles: How Music Has Shaped Civilization

By Howard Goodall


Copyright © 2013 Howard Goodall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-4762-2


The Age of Discovery

40,000 BC–AD 1450

You may think that music is a luxury, a plug-in to make human life more enjoyable. That would be a fair supposition in the twenty-first century, but our hunter-gatherer ancestors wouldn't have agreed. To them, music was much more than mere entertainment.

The famous rock paintings in Chauvet, France, made by cave-dwelling people of the Upper Palaeolithic period, or European Ice Age, are 32,000 years old. They are among the oldest surviving examples of human art ever found anywhere in the world, although, like other cave paintings, they mostly depict animals and the odd symbolically fertile female figures; these were, after all, people who daily diced with extinction. It is thought that the paintings were created and venerated as part of a ritual, and we now know that music of some kind played an important part in these rituals, since whistles and flutes made from bone have been found in many Palaeolithic caves.

A particularly ancient find was a flute made of bear bone, discovered in a Slovenian cave in 1995, which was dated at roughly 41,000BC. More impressive still, in May 2012 a joint team from Oxford and Tübingen Universities unearthed flutes made from mammoth ivory and bird bones at Geißenklöterle Cave in the Swabian Jura region of southern Germany, carbon dated at between 43,000 and 42,000 BC, making them the oldest musical instruments ever discovered. They may be simple in sound and limited in range, like tiny penny whistles, but it is nevertheless from dusty artefacts such as these that Duke Ellington's horn section and the massed woodwind of the Berlin Philharmonic would one day grow.

Although these deceptively simple ancient flutes are almost all that survives of Palaeolithic music, acoustic scientists have recently made an extraordinary discovery about the lifesaving importance of music to cave-dwellers of this period. In 2008, researchers from the University of Paris ascertained that the Chauvet paintings – which lie within huge, inaccessible, pitch-black networks of tunnels – are located at the points of greatest resonance in the cave network. From these special points, then, human voices would carry, echoing and ricocheting, throughout the whole subterranean system. It has been suggested that people would sing not just as an adjunct to communal ritual, but more crucially as a bat-like form of sonar to provide location bearings in the vast labyrinth of the cave – rather like a musical SatNav.

Our own day-to-day survival may no longer depend on our ability to sing, but our ancient ancestors were on to something that applies to modern lives, too. Study after study around the world has shown that singing enables infants to train their brains and memories, to recognise pitch differentiation as a preparation for the full development of spatial awareness. In the Palaeolithic Age this was an absolutely crucial skill, if survival depended on knowing from which direction a wild animal's cry was coming, what size it was and what mood it might be in, but even now, singing and the mastery of pitch play a large part in a child's development of language. For an infant in China, for example, pitch recognition is an essential building block of language – but in all languages it is certain that sound modulations enable us to enhance the sophistication, tone and meaning of our words.

Even though we now know that early music played an important part in ritual, communication and language development, piecing together a coherent picture of our early musical past is a notoriously difficult task because musical notation was not a common practice until much later. Fortunately, we do have evidence of music's perennial importance to public and private life. The considerable body of art left to posterity by the Ancient Egyptians, for instance, shows us that by their time (3100–670 BC), the playing of music was closely associated with the exercise of power and homage, with religious and secular rituals, and with state ceremony, dancing, love and death. These pieces of art depict a variety of instruments, from the simple sistrum or sekhem – a hand-held, U-shaped shaken percussion instrument – to harps, ceremonial horns, flutes and wind instruments whose sound is made by blowing across strips of reed, the same technique that produces the sound of the modern oboe, bassoon and clarinet families. They also depict expert performers of high status, including members of royal dynasties and deities. The prevalence of music in Ancient Egyptian life is demonstrated by the fact that over a quarter of all the tombs at the necropolis found at the site of the city of Thebes are decorated with iconography of music-making of one sort or another.

The Egyptians were not alone in their reverence for the power of music. Psalms sung by the priests of King David, who united the kingdoms of Israel and Judaea in 1003 BC, are riven through with references to instruments and to singing. (The Greek word 'psalm' itself, strictly speaking, refers to a religious song with accompaniment by plucked stringed instrument.) In one psalm alone, number 150, tof (timbrel or tambourine), hasoserah, shofar (horn), kinnor (triangular-frame harp or lyre), nebel (psaltery), 'ugav (possibly a type of organ or alternatively a flute), mesiltayim (cymbals) and minnim (an unspecified group of stringed instruments) are invoked in praise of God.

The Psalms of David, Sefer tehillim (book of praises) in Hebrew, are still sung today, to more recent melodies; as such they can claim to be the oldest continually performed tradition of religious singing in human history. David's successor, Solomon, set up a music school attached to the temple at Jerusalem for the training of musicians.

And yet we have absolutely no idea what this music sounded like. Nor do we know what the music of the earlier Sumerian civilisation sounded like (c. 4500–1940 BC), nor that of the Egyptians, nor – save for a few tiny fragments of tunes – that of the (more recent) Ancient Greeks (c. 800–146 BC). The informative paintings and impressive pyramids of the Ancient Egyptians have survived remarkably well, but their music has disappeared completely. They simply had no way of writing it down for us.

The Ancient Greeks, to be fair to them, did at least leave a few tantalisingly scattered remains of a form of musical notation, the most complete example being some lines engraved on a first-century burial tomb. This 'Epitaph of Seikilos' has an accompanying decipherable tune that lasts about ten seconds in all. But in general, it just would not have occurred to them that having musical notation mattered. This is because the Greek musical tradition, like all the musical traditions of the Ancient World, was one of improvisation. Setting music in stone, as it were, so that it stayed the same for each performance, year in and year out, would have struck them as a contradiction of music's function and enjoyment. They did not need a musical notation. All of which is particularly frustrating for us, since we have so much evidence of the wonderful-looking instruments of the Ancient World, but no way of bringing them to life.

The oldest list of musical instruments ever discovered, including a few instructions on how to play them, was found on a clay tablet in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and dated to 2600 BC. The columns on the tablet are made up of cuneiform script detailing various instruments, including the kinnor, the hand-held harp-like instrument that is alternatively known as a lyre. A slightly younger Old Babylonian clay tablet, dating from 2000–1700 BC, gives basic details on how to learn and tune a four-stringed fretted lute, including instructions for the notes to play. As such it is the oldest form of decipherable notation – albeit very simple notation – in existence. Sadly none of these lutes survives.

But archaeologists have had moderate success in unearthing other ancient instruments in all corners of the globe. Several lyres and two harps dating from the same period as the Mesopotamian clay tablet were found at the large excavated royal burial site at the old city of Ur (known today as Tell el-Muqayyar). One of the lyres is decorated with a golden bull's head, complete with large horns, and it was buried alongside the sacrificial body of its (female) player. In Egypt, equally impressive examples of the kind of instruments featured in ancient art have also been unearthed, notably a semicircular five-stringed harp found in the burial tomb of King Amenhotpe's priest Thauenany who was laid to rest in around 1350 BC.

Around the same time in Sweden – in approximately 1000 BC – it would seem that people were playing brass instruments. Cave paintings from the King's Grave at Kivik show a number of people playing – together – what look like curved horns. Horns of a similar shape, and of roughly the same period, survive to this day in the form of the Brudevaelte Lurs, a set of six Bronze Age lurs – curved brass horns – that were found in a field in Zealand, Denmark, in 1797. They were perfectly preserved and are still playable today. We even know how to play them, because their mouthpieces correspond almost exactly with those of later horns, and while we once again have no way of knowing what sort of music was played on them, we know that their sound is loud and penetrating. (In an unusual tribute to this intrinsically Danish instrument, one of the nation's most famous exports was named after it. Packets of Lurpak butter still feature a pair of lurs in their design.)

What the Brudevaelte Lurs tell us is that it is a grave error to describe the musical activity of 800 BC as 'primitive', since these elaborate brass instruments could only have been the handiwork of culturally sophisticated people, warlike though they may also have been. It is important to bear in mind that these artefacts were made and played five hundred years before the Romans conquered Europe. All across the continent – and beyond it – people were constantly thinking up new and ingenious ways of making music. But of all the culturally sophisticated ancient civilisations that were playing and enjoying music in this period, there is one group that emerges head and shoulders above the rest.

No civilisation, except perhaps for our own, has valued, venerated and taken pleasure in music more than the Ancient Greeks, whose culture dominated south-eastern Europe and the Near East for nearly seven hundred years in the first millennium BC, before it was absorbed into the Roman Empire. Even the word 'music' comes from the Greek [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] – mousike, referring to the fruits of the nine muses in literature, science and the arts.

There are three major things you need to know about the Ancient Greeks and music, and this is before we take into account that they invented one of the most influential instruments of subsequent millennia: the organ. A physicist-engineer named Ktesibios, who lived in Alexandra in the third century BC, described and possibly even invented what was known as a hydraulis organ, which used a tank of water to pressurise the air for the pipes.

The first major thing you need to know is that the Greeks believed music to be both a science and an art, and that they developed theories and systems for music accordingly. Pythagoras was but one of a host of philosopher-scientists who tried to figure out what music was and how it might relate to the laws of the natural world, especially its relationship to the heavenly bodies of the planets and stars. Greek theorists called the orbiting motions they observed in the night sky 'the music of the spheres'. And this curiosity about music is something the Classical-era Greeks wanted to instil in younger generations. When they more or less gave birth to the systematic education of young people, it is worth noting that their first compulsory seven subjects were grammar, rhetoric, logic, maths, geometry, astronomy and music. Much later, but nonetheless inspired by the Greeks, the world's first universities – Al-Karaouine in Fès, Morocco (AD 859), Bologna (1088) and Oxford (c. 1096) – included music in the basic diet of subjects they taught.

The Greeks believed that studying music would produce better, more tolerant and nobler human beings. Plato declared in The Republic that 'musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful'. Young students were accordingly expected to learn an instrument and perform music daily, alongside gymnastics.

Greek philosophies on the beneficial behavioural qualities of music find striking parallels with Confucius-influenced writings of the second and third centuries BC in China. Chinese belief in the potential of music (yue) to improve and refine the human condition was so pronounced that in the Zhou and early Han dynasties the control of musical activity was enshrined in a specific government department. Like their contemporaries in Greece, the Han Chinese saw virtue in the relationship between musical pitch in music – the relative distance between notes – and the arrangement of the stars and planets they observed above them. Thousands of pages of theory and instruction survive, detailing how it might be possible through careful calculation, through manipulation of the calendar, through codifying the elements of music and through study of the cosmos, to formulate good governance, based on the correct alignment of these associated forces.

The second major thing about the Greeks and music is that they treated it as an essential part of all their significant rituals. Aristides Quintilianus, who lived some time between the first and third centuries AD, reported of Greek life that, 'To be sure, there is no action among men that is carried out without music. Sacred hymns and offerings are adorned with music, specific feasts and the festive assemblies of cities exult in it, wars and marches are both aroused and composed through music. It makes sailing and rowing and the most difficult of the handicrafts not burdensome by providing an encouragement for the work.' The Ancient Greeks reserved their greatest excitement in relation to music, though, for competitions, of which they had a large number.

Everyone knows that the Ancient Greeks invented the Olympic Games; for the Greeks, though, it wasn't just running, nude wrestling and hurling the javelin that were important. The earliest Olympic Games were religious, as well as athletic, festivals, and as such would have included some music-making. But a distinct tradition of singing competitions grew up separately, and attracted participants from all over the Greek- dominated eastern Mediterranean. Singer-songwriters would gather for festivals and sing their homespun songs for the benefit of a panel of judges and a live audience. (Yes, even The X-Factor is a three-thousand-year-old format.) The earliest recorded contest took place at Chalcis in around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod proudly penning a few lines in celebration of his winning a solo singing class there. The Spartan city of Carneia hosted a long series of knock-out talent shows for singers accompanying themselves on the kithara, a form of lyre. (In 670 BC one such competition was won by Terpander, a bardic musician and kithara expert who is said to have died from choking on a fig thrown by an admirer at a concert.) There were also choral competitions, with a festival atmosphere and plenty of group choreography – ancient versions, if you like, of the present-day carnivals in Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad and Notting Hill.


Excerpted from The Story of Music by Howard Goodall. Copyright © 2013 Howard Goodall. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Howard Goodall is an Emmy, BRIT, and BAFTA award–winning composer. In recent years he has been England’s first ever national ambassador for singing; the Classic BRIT composer of the year, and Classic FM’s composer-in-residence. He was appointed commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for in 2011 for services to music education.

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