A revisionist history highlights music’s connections to violence, disruption, and power.
In a sweeping survey that begins in “pre-human natural soundscapes,” music historian Gioia (How To Listen to Jazz, 2016, etc.) examines changes and innovation in music, arguing vigorously that the music produced by “peasants and plebeians, slaves and bohemians, renegades and outcasts” reflected and influenced social, cultural, and political life. For the earliest humans, writes the author, music-making was far more important than simply entertainment: Songs “served as a source of transformation and enchantment for individuals and communities,” embodying myth and cultural lore. Music also was indelibly connected to violence, from troops’ drums and horns to rousing anthems. “Every violent group in history,” Gioia notes, “has its motivating songs,” evidence that music “is a mighty force” for change. Disruption, however, was not limited to martial music. Once the audience emerged “as the judge of aesthetic merit during the late medieval period and Renaissance,” music changed from an art sanctioned by aristocracy and the church to one that pleased “the untutored crowd.” Popular musicians presented themselves as dramatic, artistic personalities; when they offered works celebrating “love and glory, the singer emerged as the focal point of the lyrics, the real subject of every song.” Gioia aims to overturn long-held images of many composers: Beethoven, for example, was hardly “the ultimate classical music insider, the bedrock of the symphonic tradition,” but rather a passionate personality whose “strange, peculiar, arbitrary, bizarre, mysterious, gloomy and laborious” music caused him, early in his career, to be considered “a volatile outsider whose impulses needed to be held in check.” With Beethoven, writes the author, “everything gets viewed through a prism of revolution, upheaval, and clashing value systems.” That desire to upend the status quo has invigorated music, whether it is jazz, folk music, hip-hop, or electrified bands. Despite efforts to quash innovation, “in the long term, songs tend to prevail over even the most authoritarian leaders.”
A bold, fresh, and informative chronicle of music’s evolution and cultural meaning.