This book is an exploration of the scientific,
physical and conceptual background behind music. In it, the author
attempts to explain (and rationalise) the myriad processes that
have gone on in the background when we listen to and appreciate
music. The book is based on a music appreciation course and is
intended as a listening programme for people who do not necessarily
have any musical training. The author is a professor of Performing
Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia, USA. He is
a composer and has published several books on Stockhausen as well
as two earlier books on similar topics to this one, 'The Concept
of Music' and 'The Science of Music'.
The book is divided into 20 chapters plus an
introduction. Each chapter covers a topic or a group of topics
but the chapter headings are not always representative of the
contents of the chapter. 'Sound and Vision' introduces the author's
thoughts about sound. 'Processing Sound' goes on to discuss the
physical sound and how we interpret it. 'Instruments' relates
how we hear and how instruments make sounds. 'Signatures' starts
to introduce the concept of notation and of expressing things
through music. 'Reflections' is mainly about how we use sound.
'Directions' moves from the development of the classical amphitheatre
through to more detailed ideas about notation. 'Space' presents
several topics themed around how the acoustical space affects
the music and our perception of it. 'Visible Sound' is a selection
of pictures which have musical connotations. 'In Camera' is a
series of reflections on chamber music including a discussion
of lute tablature. 'Team Players' considers the concept of performance
by groups of musicians and the scientific developments needed
to make this easier. 'Resonance' discusses effects the physical
resonance of a structure can have on music. 'Leadership' introduces
who does what - issues related to soloists and concerti. 'Time
and Motion' discusses issues of time in music and performance.
'Noise' relates issues of noise and harmony, consonance and dissonance.
'Mechanical Music' is a history of mechanical musical reproduction.
'Mouth Music' is a group of topics related to speech and voice.
'Relativity' discusses the problems of texture, style and tempo
being relative rather than absolute as well as problems of keeping
time with groups of players. 'Inspiration' is a discussion on
film music. "Memory' is a group of topics related to recording
and voice reproduction. 'Outer Space' involves science fiction
and new types of instruments.
Each chapter is divided into a number of sections,
each with its own rather smart heading. The first chapter, 'Sound
and Vision' has 7 sections but some have over a dozen. Here the
author's structure tends to break down. I can imagine, in a lecture,
linked by musical examples, each of these chapters could become
quite a coherent narrative. But shorn of any musical soundtrack,
the sections sometimes seem to wander from idea to idea as each
seems to occur to the author, rather than having a predefined
structure. Also, he does seem to use sections as light relief.
So that in the chapter 'Space', a discussion of spatial effects
in Venetian music is followed by a pretty unnecessary section
on Corelli's 1680 Concerto Grosso with its in-built musical joke.
A good way of lightening the atmosphere in a lecture, but not
so useful on the printed page without the musical example.
Maconie is writing for people who do not necessarily
have any musical experience, so he makes a heroic attempt to avoid
jargon. But the structure of the book means that, for instance,
pitch is not defined until page 55. Though this is probably inevitable
as otherwise the book would start with an off-putting welter of
definitions. In his striving to avoid jargon, Maconie is fond
of using metaphors from so-called real life. These can get rather
strained and eventually become rather annoying. But, you must
bear in mind the book’s intended audience. If you have studied
the piano and another musical instrument, played in an orchestra,
sung in a choir, had voice lessons, studied music or physics -
then much of this information will not be new to you and the author's
circumlocutions may become tedious. But it is a mark of Maconie's
lucidity that he never fails to bring something of interest to
any of the topics that he covers.
One of the basic premises that Maconie bases
the book on is the idea of music as heightened speech. This means
that in the discussing the development of music and of musical
notation, he spends quite a lot of time referring to plainchant.
This is very relevant and quite fascinating for a musician. But
for someone who is untrained, the early chapter of this book spend
rather too much time discussing music of which they will have
little or no experience.
Early on in the book, Maconie states that 'An
even more radical conclusion would be that the only information
of any consequence that music has to offer comes down to the quality
of the acoustic signal, the sound of the instrument in a particular
location, and how much of it a person can hear. We do not intend
to suggest that a knowledge of the history of music and performance
cannot add to the enjoyment of a finely executed concert. Well,
yes, actually we do. What matters is the experience. The experience
is acoustical' (Author's italics). This might be reassuring for
a new listener - the idea that you can come to a concert without
any musical history cluttering your unconscious and still appreciate
the music fully. But it is surely a false reassurance. Even the
author goes on to suggest the opposite is true on occasions, particularly
when talking about how cultures attach different expressive natures
to modes and scales. Later on, Maconie even goes on to discuss
subversion in music, which surely needs more cultural references.
Listening to music is never a purely acoustic experience, it always
brings with it innumerable cultural references, be they welcome
Essentially, I found this a book to dip into.
Reading from beginning to end, there was rather too much information
and the lack of structure began to tell. But taken selectively,
the individual sections are fascinating and if you can add your
own musical sound track, then all the better.