Thursday, August 23, 2012

Review: Engaging Music


I spent many hours yesterday taking seven music department diagnostic exams, including sight-singing, dictation, playing figured bass and a string quartet on the piano, identifying ten mystery scores spanning the entire range of classical music history, harmonizing a chorale melody, and giving an oral presentation analyzing a piece.  In order to prepare for that last exam, it was recommended that we peruse a book I’d never heard of before: Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis, edited by Deborah Stein and published in 2005.  I wish I’d heard of this book sooner – it would have come in handy as an undergraduate!

Engaging Music is a series of short analyses of musical pieces by professors of music theory, directed at an audience of undergraduate music majors and intended to serve as examples for analytical essays.  Stein explains this goal in her preface: when a class of music majors was assigned an analysis paper, they asked for an example upon which they could model their methodology and writing.  Stein had difficulty recommending a reading, and embarked upon the project of collecting essays by prominent music theorists to compile into a collection for other young music majors looking for guidance.  So many people were enthusiastic about the book and eager to supply essays that she had to turn many potential contributors away!

If you’re interested to know what sort of work music theorists do, this book would be a great starting point.  It doesn’t assume that its readers know a lot of complicated musical terminology, and each essay is rather short, explaining the purpose of its methodology and then proceeding to a brief analysis of an aspect of a piece of classical music.  Topics vary widely both in time period and by type of musical repertoire.  Reading Engaging Music in its entirety, you will encounter composers ranging from 17th-century Purcell to Bartók, Schoenberg, and other 20th-century composers.  You’ll read about how instrumental pieces treat form, rhythm, harmony, and motive; how song and aria lyrics express drama, emotion, and psychology; and how techniques of traditional classical music theory can (or cannot) be applied to the analysis of popular music such as jazz and rock.   Taken collectively, these essays served as a useful reminder of the many topics I needed to consider when working on my own analysis for the oral exam (form, both large and small-scale; rhythm and meter; pitch collections; keys and cadences; melody, theme, and motive; instruments and register; textual organization and text-setting).  They would have saved me a lot of stress, had I discovered them as an undergraduate attempting my own first analysis papers.  Perhaps someday I’ll teach music theory 101; if I do, I will certainly recommend this book to my students.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker

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