The first impressive thing about Howard Goodall’s new history of music is its brevity. Most books about music history — even a sliver of that history, like jazz or hip-hop — are quite plump. Goodall — himself a composer and host of a BBC television series to which this book is a companion — covers everything in under 350 pages (not counting a playlist and index).
You can quibble about what’s left out (Charles Ives, free jazz, most of the world’s non-Western music), but what’s here is choice. If you want a primer on basic music theory — including harmony, the “Circle of Fifths,” fugues, shuffle rhythms — an explanation of Wagner’s leitmotifs, or how Schubert’s songs are related to those of Adele, Goodall is an adept guide. But what really makes the book sing is the author’s argumentative style, giving it narrative momentum from paragraph to paragraph. This really is the “story” of music, not just a chronological laundry list of important people and events.