Great books about music (no musical training required)

Ever since the invention of the phonograph at the end of the 19th century and continuing with the digital streaming services of the early 21st century, music has become ever more accessible to more people. If you want to know more about all of this music and how it is made, there are many wonderful books that can provide interesting and useful insights about music whether or not you’ve ever studied it or played an instrument.

pianoshopThe Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier
by Thad Carhart

This short memoir centers around Carhart’s discovery of DesForges Pianos, an atelier in his quartier where pianos are restored and refurbished. Once Carhart gains the proper introduction, he enters into the world of DesForges and a growing friendship with its proprietor and master craftsman, Luc. Carhart also rediscovers his own long-buried passion for pianos and soon selects and purchases a piano from Luc, then begins taking piano lessons. Embedded within the narrative are warm and intelligent reflections on pianos and people’s relationships with them. It’s an instrument that you don’t just possess, but live with. It becomes a part of your household.

musicsmodernmuseMusic’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac
by Sylvia Kahan

This fascinating biography covers the life of Winnaretta Singer, heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune and one of the most important music patrons of late 19th and early 20th century in France. She commissioned important works from Stravinsky, Poulenc, Ravel, de Falla, Tailleferre, and many others. She also gave many, many composers and performers support through her musical salons. Singer was generally quite forward-thinking, often championing and encouraging those who were at the forefront of modernism. The entire history of 20th century music would have been vastly different were it not for the Princess de Polignac. Kahan’s book is an enormous pleasure to read. It is strongly narrative and linear, which gives it the feel of an engrossing novel.

howmusicworksHow Music Works
by David Byrne

Byrne has a lot of interesting things to say about music and his experiences in and out of the Talking Heads. He covers a lot of ground, offering up illuminating perspectives on the social and cultural functions of music, how these contexts affect its creation, and how the music business works. He is also brimming with a refreshing optimism and positivity about popular music and its future.

I Shot a Man in Reno: A History of Death by Murder, Suicide, Fire, Flood, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure, as Related in Popular Song
by Graeme Thomson

This short book is an entertaining and illuminating meditation on murder, suicide, disease, and death in popular music, mostly of the 20th century, but reaching a little bit beyond in either direction. Thomson ably covers a multitude of genres, from traditional ballads to gangsta rap and emo, and the connections between them.

Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano: The Story of the First Pianos and How They Caused a Cultural Revolution
by Madeline Goold
Mr. Langshaw’s Square Piano explores the history of early pianos and piano-making, the life and activities of early 19th century piano owner, John Langshaw, and the cultural changes that the first pianos brought about.

First Nights: Five Musical Premieres
by Thomas Forrest Kelly

This engaging book looks at Western art music through the lens of the premieres of five significant pieces: Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo, Handel’s oratorio Messiah, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de Printemps. Kelly discusses the piece, the composer, the performance itself, and the reactions to them.

The 33 1/3 series

Each volume in this series focuses on a single album by a rock artist or band. The series covers a wide range of works: from renowned albums such as Led Zeppelin IV to indie and avant garde selections such as Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Since each book is written by a different author, the approaches and quality can vary greatly, but each book has something valuable and interesting to say about the subject matter and will help you both discover new material to listen to and to listen to old favorites with new ears.


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