They say that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Well then, here goes… I’m a bookworm. So much so that it takes an enormous amount of will power to pry myself away from a good novel before being late to work. It’s easy to get caught up in a story, to lose track of time, and to acknowledge the fact that there are probably a few other things that you should be doing… errands, housework, taxes, and, oh yeah, playing bass. When it comes to my leisure time, it seems as if the two creative sides of my brain engage in a constant battle… do I listen to or play music or, do I read a book or work on my writing? Thankfully, in an effort to justify my time reading, I decided to start devouring a series of “music books” that, in many ways, has supplemented my practice time. Perhaps I’m in denial, but, I’ve discovered that reading about music has offered me as much, or more, practical knowledge than running through scales or learning songs.
Although there’s no substitute for sitting down and wood-shedding, there’s plenty of practice to be done without having your bass in your hands. Certain aspects of our playing, such as technique, developing muscle memory, and improving tone, require physical time with your instrument. That said, it’s just as important to allow for mental practice and exposure to new ideas. That’s where the books come in.
When it comes to finding cool music-related books, there are a few different routes you can take. You can immerse yourself in a particular artist, the development of a genre, music theory, or the social, economic, or cultural impact of music. Each type of book will offer different ideas, perspectives, and unexpected musical lessons.
One of the most popular genres of “music books” is the biography (or autobiography). If you’re intrigued by a particular artist, be it Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan, reading a biography will give you greater insight into their lives, how they were inspired as musicians, and how their careers developed. If you read an autobiographical book, you’ll get a deeper sense of the artist’s style and methodology, particularly if they are songwriters as well.
While you’re reading about the artist and their life, take some time to revisit their music. You’ll listen to it in a different way, whether it’s with a new understanding of their inspiration for a particular song or with an historical perspective and awareness of their career. Chances are, you’ll be motivated to practice something related to their music, whether it’s learning how to play the artist’s tunes or trying to write your own.
If you’re not one for reading biographies, try finding an historical or genre-study book. These tend to focus on the initial development of a genre and its evolution over time. You’ll be exposed to the musical pioneers, including artists, businessmen, record labels, and publishers, who helped bring the style to a wider audience. The author is also likely to point out artists that you’ve never heard of before, giving you reason to further dive into that genre and add new albums to your collection. Alongside the musical perspective, you’ll probably learn how the overall socio-economic atmosphere, including politics, historic events, or other art forms, had an influence on the public acceptance of the genre.
If you’re feeling particularly academic when it’s time for a new book, search for something steeped in music theory. “Theory” can have quite a few definitions.
During traditional lessons or classes, theory refers to chords, scales, harmonic analysis, and the development of compositional techniques. You can walk into any music store or university bookstore, or do a quick search online, in order to find a good theory book. Just remember that whenever you consider music theory, acknowledge the differences between classical and jazz. You may even stumble upon compositional styles that you’ve never been aware of before, such as the 12-tone system, by studying the various approaches to theory and composition.
“Theory” taken in a cultural sense can refer to how and why music is developed, how it influences (or is influenced by) our culture and technology, and the study of music as an art form. On a practical level, these books may identify musical practice and development, or how and why it’s necessary to dedicate time to the study of music. Some may also tackle the question “what is music?” in relation to how it fits in to our world and how (or if) it is differentiated from sound or noise.
The more you read about this subject, the more you’ll see how different societies define and incorporate music into their lifestyles. If you ever find yourself struggling to define music or determine how it fits into your own life, try seeking out some perspectives or inspiration in these types of theory books.
You can also get into the science of music, which includes the physical element (i.e.: sound waves and frequencies) and the psychological element (how the brain recognizes and interprets sound or music). These books are typically more challenging, since they’ll include experiments, data, and analysis, however, the right author can keep you interested. Understanding some of the “scientific” end of music can certainly come in handy, particularly if you’re interested in the construction of instruments, the physics behind sound in a live or studio environment, or if you’re intrigued by music therapy.
Needless to say, the possibilities are endless when stepping into the music section of a library or bookstore. In addition to the types of books mentioned above, you can choose to read about recording techniques, the music business, the media, technological advancements in the field, and even tips about how to get more out of listening to or reading about music. As I mentioned before, reading these books is not a substitute for sitting down and physically playing scales or songs, but it is an essential supplement to learning music. How you approach the art form will be determined by both what and how much you know about it. So, while it’s important to learn the bass line to “Brick House,” it’s just as important to know about music and how you want it to fit into your life.
Here are just a few reading suggestions… please add to the list and tell us about some of your favorite music books.
- Standing in the Shadows of Motown by Dr. Licks (Allan Slutsky)
- Jaco by Bill Milkowski
- Chronicles by Bob Dylan
- Life by Keith Richards
- Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick
- Deep Blues by Robert Palmer
- Songwriters on Songwriting by Paul Zollo
- The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
- Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner
Practice and Development:
- Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin