Books about music

Foyles bookstore, London, UK
Foyles bookstore, London, UK

The Eastman School of Music Sibley Library is possibly the largest music library in the world, rivaled by maybe only the Library of Congress and the other world class state conservatories (Moscow, Paris, London). Despite its size I remember wandering around it as a graduate student and coming to the realization that damn few of the books about music had little to teach that was truly useful, or if they did, perhaps only a scrap or two of ideas in the whole book were of lasting value.

The collection of music scores and recordings (and live performances, of course), however, was an entirely different story. That, mostly, is where I learned what I learned, the music itself (including the musical examples in the books). If you have $10 bucks and a choice between a book about music and the music itself, buy the score!

That said, there are books that I keep beside my desk, even in this world of the Internet in which we keep the sum of the world’s knowledge (and quite a few lies) in our shirt pocket. This is my list. If you can find them and afford to buy them, I recommend them. A few were only of value to me when I was young, but most still help me, and I reach for them often when working.

Next to each book, you’ll see some of the ideas that spoke to me most in that book.


The Study of Orchestration — Samuel Adler Everything!
The Technique of Orchestration — Kent Kennan Everything…much less info than the Adler, but sometimes that’s just what you need.


What to Listen for in Music — Aaron Copland
A Composer’s World — Paul Hindemith
Counterpoint — Knud Jeppesen This is the primo modal counterpoint book. If you’re one of those who believes in “the two-voice framework” modal counterpoint is essential
Polyphonic Composition — Owen Swindale While the Jeppesen is practically a primary source, the Swindale actually teaches you how to write points of imitations and motets and such…that’s why it’s named what it’s named.
Form in Tonal Music — Douglass M. Green Each of these books covers the same material, but each has its own unique observations and techniques of showing them.
Form in Music — Wallace Berry
Musical Form — Ellis B. Kohs
Essentials of Eighteenth-Century Counterpoint — Neale B. Mason As Swindale does for the 16th Century, this book does for the 18the Century. It teaches you how to actually compose in its contrapuntal forms.
Counterpoint — Walter Piston An early, but important, counterpoint book, although not as authoritative as the Jeppesen is to modal counterpoint.
The Craft of Musical Composition — Paul Hindemith His unique theory and approach to step progressions (that melodies have skeletons) and his classification of harmonic dissonances make this important; later theories (Heinrich Schenker, for instance, took Hindemith’s step progression theory way too far until it became meaningless. Hindemith keeps it reigned in.)
20th Century Harmony — Vincent Persichetti Not valuable for me any more, but as a high-school student it gave me entry into something beyond J. S. Bach (I was an organist).


Harmony — Walter Piston An early, but important, harmony book. Its weakness is, in a way, its strength: it’s only concerned with the order of traditional harmonic progression.
The Contrapuntal Harmonic Technique of the Eighteenth Century — Allen McHose McHose’s approach to analysis was entirely statistical, based on rigorous statistical analysis of important Classical composers. What I like about his approach, other than this statistical grounding, is his chart of traditional harmonic progressions that I will present in my own simplified form at some point in this blog.

I know, I know, I know: yes, I’m betraying my very old-fashioned training; yes, each one of those books (except the Adler and the Kennan) may only contain a few fragments of ideas that are valuable; yes, some of those books are so old they’re probably not in print any more. NEVERTHELESS, they’re my favorites (was raised on ’em) and I was surprised to see that even something as obscure as the McHose is available, used, on the Internet. The Hindemith Craft of Musical Composition is even available in downloadable PDF. So…hunt around, you can find them, and probably pretty cheap. Keep them in your knapsack.

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