I'm not new to the musical world, and for quite a bit of time I've been wondering on all the reasons that are behind our usual way of understanding music (7-note diatonic scale, 12-note chromatic scale, development and construction of scales, concepts of consonance and dissonance, harmony, tunings and costructions of instruments): I am really curious and willing to deeply study the historical developments of such problems, with also particular desire to deepen their mathematical and physical aspects.

But now my question is: where, and how, should I start learning?

It's been a long time since I've been seeking for information on the Internet, and I even managed to found lots of very interesting things, but what I have now is a set of disjoint, incomplete and sometimes even contradictory answers.

Instead, do you have in mind some good books about all that stuff? I know there are huge 1000-pages tomes about Western art music history, but I guess they contain much more than what I'd need (e.g. Biographies on composers, deep philosophical discussions, or simply just deepenings of musical examples of every particular period); and I also think books specifically related to Harmony won't cover neither the development of Harmony (and that of music, generally speaking) nor the minimum space of philosofical argument needed, for example, to determinine the role that consonance and dissonance had in history.

In short, I'd like having a comprehensive book about history, mathematics and physics, melody, harmony and, ultimately, philosophy of music. All starting from the basic questions: "What is a note?" "How was it created its concept?" "How men arrived to the construction of musical scales?", and, finally, "How did the concept of music, melody, and harmony changed throughout history?"

I hope not to seem too vague and abstract, but these questions have been oppressing me for a long time, even before trying to compose a single line of music.

  • A book that fits your description quite well is Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia universalis, though it's a bit out of date now (published in Rome in 1650) – musarithmia Mar 9 '16 at 19:07

So, you just want a detailed book about everything, but one that isn't too large? Most of your questions can be addressed simply by reading a history book. Of them, I believe that the Norton Anthology of Western Music is one of the best documents out there on this topic.

Keep in mind that if you want to cover everything in one source, then your knowledge will only be introductory. For any philosophical discussions or answers to very niché questions, you'll need to reference more specialized sources dealing in music aesthetics, theory, or individual compositional techniques, such as discussions of pedagogical implications and influences on music creation.


As Jj has said, It's quite a broad topic. I've spent years reading this and that to try and understand the history of music.

In General

One book I feel was really great is Stephen Fry's 'Incomplete & Utter History of Classical Music'.

What's great about is that it takes you all the way from the earliest known instruments all the way through bach, Bel Canto, Mozart and beyond, while being charming and enjoyable throughout. It's rather anecdotal so I've found it's better for retaining information than the timelines and wikipedia entries on music periods.

Getting Specific

As far as specific harmony development goes, you could do worse than The Study Of Counterpoint which is an 18th century book that set the standard for how to write harmony (There's also a follow up, but I haven't been through it yet). I believe it was used by Mozart to teach his students also, and is a very interesting and short historical book. It's the first example I'd read of a music treatise, which means the author is stating their beliefs on how they think music should be written.

Another benefit to this book is that is actually teaches the base fundamentals of composition, from parallel perfect intervals to the tritone. It really built my composition knowledge from the ground up, and may help you with understanding the bare bones of western music :)

As an aside I've actually done a series of articles about TSOC because I enjoyed it so much.

Getting Deep Answers

As Jj has also said, for any deep answers you will have to go into more niché/focused books, because what Bach, Messien, John Cage, Frank Zappa, Guns and Roses, Yes and the Sex Pistols think about music will be vastly different to each other.

I would advise getting a shallow overall book (the reason I bought Stephen Fry) and then go deeper into the areas which stir passion.

Hope that helps. The great thing about this site is that you'll likely get a whole range of interesting books that avid musicians enjoy, so the most thorough solution is to read them all!

  • Technically speaking, The Study of Counterpoint is an 18th century book that teaches methods for interesting linear contours and historically "appropriate" techniques for handling dissonance. Counterpoint is a technique within composition, not composition itself. Obsession with vertical harmony doesn't really develop until the mid-late Classic period. – jjmusicnotes Apr 9 '14 at 13:59
  • ah bugger, I forgot that 1725 means 18th century, my bad! You're right that it's just one technique, but I've found that as far as a starting point goes, TSOC is still wonderful. Also, I knew you'd pick up on my mention of TSOC jj :P – Alexander Troup Apr 9 '14 at 14:02

I found Howard Goodall's 'Big Bangs: Five Musical Revolutions' fascinating, especially the chapter on the development of musical notation. It's his choice of the five most important musical developments of the last thousand years.

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