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Music: A Subversive History

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  291 ratings  ·  45 reviews
A preeminent music historian and critic presents a global history of music from the bottom up

Histories of music overwhelmingly suppress stories of the outsiders and rebels who created musical revolutions and instead celebrate the mainstream assimilators who borrowed innovations, diluted their impact, and disguised their sources. In Music: A Subversive History, historian Te
Hardcover, First Edition (U.S.), 528 pages
Published October 15th 2019 by Basic Books/Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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Joachim Stoop
May 17, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: music
It was different and a bit less engaging than I expected
J Earl
Oct 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia started out by surprising me and ended up by blowing me away. Not what I had expected, as in: much more than I expected.

I love to read music histories. Most tend to be about a specific genre, maybe about an era, sometimes about an instrument. The few I have read that are a history of music as a whole still tend to be selective with what is considered music (or at least what they deem worthy of inclusion) and/or limited by a broad style (western vs eastern
Sep 26, 2019 rated it it was ok
Gioia notes early in this book that he's been writing it for 25 years. That shows: his conception of how music history is taught and written about and discussed is about 25 years out-of-date, and his work in this book suffers badly from it. The book would have been a powerful call to action and change two decades ago, but today, with hundreds of fantastic, progressive, new, and radically different approaches to music historiography in practice, both for "art" and "pop" musics, Gioia's work is ou ...more
Jason Friedlander
Jun 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Gioia’s story of (mostly western) music’s subversive power is interesting and entertaining to follow, though I realized halfway through that my engagement with it was inversely related to how much I knew about the period or artists brought up. At the end of the day it’s another grand narrative more intriguing read between the covers than within a broader context, but still one worth seriously considering.
I am putting this down for the moment, the patronizing tone was too annoying. I might return to it at some point though, because he does talk about interesting stuff.
Gus Weyandt
Aug 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Gioia’s history of music uniquely maps the age-old battle between artists and power structures. Comprehensive and thought-provoking, “Music: A Subversive History” challenges its readers to rethink musical innovation, not just as simple entertainment or high art, but as a social and political force with immense ability to alter and uproot lives as well as entire societies. This is a must-read for any music OR history buff: It will surely expand your understanding of music beyond the constraints o ...more
Gaili Schoen
Feb 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Some fascinating information here. Shocking to hear that the US spends more on military bands than it does on the National Endowment for the Arts. It seems that the American government believes that music is best suited to ramp up our military! I appreciated that women in music history were given if not equal time, they were at least given most of their due. Many interesting anecdotes and the central argument that it is rebellion and outsiders that give rise to the most innovative music is plaus ...more
Everyone interested in music should at least give this one a try.
Gioia has a holistic view, and is not ›only‹ concerned with musical techniques, styles and fashions, but with anthropological, social and political aspects.
Extremely valuable how he regards themes that rarely find their way into a non-fiction book about art, especially music, about all the ›dark‹ or ›raunchy‹ powers that music possesses: sex, violence, social unrest, defiance, magic, altered states of mind.
Gioia is a fine storytell
Amy Lively
3.5 stars. I will be honest that I had to skim chunks of this book, mostly in the first half, because I just am not interested in the music of ancient history. I also thought the last two chapters were lacking in analysis and were more a lament about music in the digital age. However, the parts I liked I liked a lot, which was made all the more apparent to me when I saw how many notes I had taken & highlights I had by the time I was done.

I found the notion of approaching music history from the
James Klagge
Jul 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, music
An interesting read. Offers a history of music from the start (hunter-gatherers) to streaming. Although it examines a few non-Western traditions, it is mostly Western music. The "subversive history" proposes that musical innovation always comes from the outsiders and then eventually gets accommodated. Thus, the history of music is a sort of pendulum. While this is painting with very broad strokes, it makes for an interesting viewpoint. It does feel like the details are sometimes cherry-picked to ...more
Alex MacMillan
Jun 02, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audiobook
This global survey of the history of music is a hit-or-miss affair, as many chapters, particularly during the prehistoric and medieval eras, either drag or are too repetitive. He overuses cliched phrases such as "the present ethos" and "at this juncture" to the point of aggravation. The author's editor should have urged him to consolidate the first half's key points into fewer chapters, especially as his postmodern speculations about the subversive undertones of premodern music are overly relian ...more
Aug 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: ng
Writing about music can be very difficult indeed--explaining with words what really is best heard with one's own ears. The cultural history of music is equally as complex, with every piece having a wide array of sources and influences, as well as some coincidental resemblances.

Ted Gioia has done well at emphasizing the interconnected nature of music as it relates to our experience as humans. The reader gains a kind of bird's-eye-view of why and how we make music, as well as lots of interesting f
Apr 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
What an education on the history of music: Is music sound or notes? Noise or precisely planned?
From Sappho and Pythagoras to Jazz and Blues to the Beatles and Rock to Personics and Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Gioia paints dazzling picture of the history of music. When music is dear to you, you will find this book a tour de force.
Jennifer Vekert
Sep 07, 2020 rated it it was ok
The paleobiology was notably wrong on a few obvious points so all the cool stuff seemed dubious. Dnf.
Chris Jaffe
Dec 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is an impressive and ambitious - maybe a little too ambitious - attempt to understand the history of music from way back when. And when I saw way back when, Gioia tries to go to prehistoric times to understand the roots of the appeal of music. It can be traced back to bird songs. (While music is often associated with love nowadays, Gioia notes how music was also always associated with war as well).

There are a few themes that come through. One is about the desire to control music and reduce
John McClester
Apr 02, 2021 rated it really liked it
Well, I finally finished "Music: A Subversive History" by Ted Gioia, whose 514 pages took me a while, not because the book wasn't fascinating, but like Leonard Cohen said, I like to take things slow.

For the reader who wants to cut right to the chase (whatever that might be), Gioia provides several guides. First, the book is arranged chronologically from the singing and chanting that accompanied paleolithic cave painting (p.29), through the divergent views of Empedocles and Pythagorus on the nat
Feb 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
First off, the title of the book may more accurately read as a subversive history of WESTERN music. It takes a non-westerner to recognize this simple fact out of the gate.

However, the author has done a wonderful job of presenting music as a subversive force through the ages, even as it paradoxically serves as a force to unite communities. Music’s association with sex and violence from times immemorial serve as the backdrop for the entirely of the book. The author is not wrong with taking this p
Kumail Akbar
“When dealing with music, the personal is the political, and always has been.” This is what Gioia wanted to show with this work, and has done an excellent job doing so. As I am not well versed in the history of music, I am unable to comment on the accuracy of his claims nor evaluate them with any semblance of objectivity, but as a coherent narrative the argument he presents – that musical innovation happens ‘from the bottom up and the outside in’ sounds very believable. He argues that the histor ...more
Scott Martin
Jun 01, 2020 rated it really liked it
(Audiobook) This book was more interesting than I initially thought it might be. It offer a comprehensive history of music, looking at how the major innovations for music came from those deemed subversive and/or revolutionary. The author seems to relish pointing out the fallacies of established music history and has no problem turning sacred cows into great hamburgers. Some of the biggest revelations come from the older history, back in the time of the Sumerians and the great kingdoms of the Mid ...more
Ted Burke
Nov 05, 2019 rated it liked it
Fascinating read, Goia does us the favor of skipping the technical comparatives and assorted arcana that interest tech heads and deep nerds and instead discusses, in plain language, the evolution of music in social, philosophical and spiritual context, revealing the need to make music as a means to give direct and immediate expression of human experience . He covers a lot of material here, does a fine job displaying the various arguments over the use and misuse of music has been, and is very cog ...more
Feb 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
A really fun read. Gioia advances a few key theses in this history of music--that music is deeply connected to magic, that music is deeply connected to violence, that musical innovations are created by outsiders and eventually mainstreamed by the power structure. The latter means that he doesn't accept some of the standard histories that claim some prominent political or church leader introduced some innovation and he goes looking for where the ideas really came from. He's got a thesis as to why ...more
Apr 26, 2020 rated it liked it
Sex and violence. That's what music is all about, folks! Gioia draws a somewhat straight line from the most probable origins of music in the human species to the algorithmic curation of listener playlists. He argues music is always driven by the outsider. It's the music of the slave that influences the tastes of the slave masters, whose attempts to standardize and codify only push the outsider to innovate. This will come as no surprise to anyone who's a fan of more than one genre of music. It's ...more
Jan 10, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobooks, history, 2021
The final line of the book is: "... with music, we can all be wizards." If that doesn't intrigue you ... don't know what to say. Entertaining and fascinating - I have no way of evaluating the accuracy of some of this, but when Gioia touches on subjects I know something about (music during the Reformation, church fathers on music etc.) I found him to be painting in broad strokes (not surprising, given the scope of the book), but not inaccurately.

I do wish that there had been a little more on musi
Chuck Denison
Music: A Subversive History
Ted Gioia

This is his fourth book on music. In it he argues a simple essential Hegelian formula where Thesis is the old accepted “in fashion” style, Antithesis is the new “outsider” music, which in his theory must come from the outside, must be a real anti-thesis, and finally Synthesis, wherein the erstwhile radical anti-music has gradually become a new Thesis, ready for its own antithesis from the outside. Seems obvious enough. But his thus framed history of
Nick Rabkin
Feb 17, 2020 rated it liked it
A bit too clever for its own good. Still, a very intriguing approach to understanding the power of music throughout history. By the time you get past Pythagoras, though, he's pretty much wrung out the idea and it take a couple of hundred more pages before he gets to the present. Big theories like this always leak a little. One can quibble and find lots of exceptions and alternative ways to understand what's going on in music, but Gioia has done for music what, in some ways Marx did for political ...more
Dec 23, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: music
A captivating read and a nice counterpart to the standard music history textbooks. Gioia presents a compelling theory about the development of musical styles and argues his case persuasively with regard to each era and style that he covers. Much of the evidence presented is truly illuminating. Who knew that the Lydians and Phrygians were actually ethnic groups enslaved by the Greeks, for instance? I bristled a bit at Gioia's insistence upon the universality of music, but he's referring more to i ...more
Apr 01, 2021 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed Ted Giola’s ‘The History of Jazz’ and enjoyed equally his ‘Music: A Subversive History’. In the former he explains how African-Americans, slaves and the offspring of slaves, were responsible for creating blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and rock, i.e. the music of 20th century America. In the latter he shows that throughout history it’s been ‘outsiders’ and those at the margins of society who’ve influenced music that eventually became mainstream.
Oct 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
Music can be a tough subject to make interesting, and the author mostly succeeds. This is a long book, but the diversity of the topics covered and their inter-relationships is clear and well-executed. This may be a bit dry for some readers, but the author has deep knowledge and is a good writer.

I really appreciate the copy for review!!
Lee Barry
Jan 26, 2020 rated it liked it
A fantastic work of scholarship, but the subversion premise is a bit weak, and the book is top-heavy in information to support it. There were some interesting takeaways for me, but I wasn't really that moved by it.

I recommend Joel Dinerstein's book The Origins of Cool in Postwar America. 'Cool' is inherently subversive across many domains.
Jul 01, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Learned and convincing argument that music is by its very nature subversive, and that new styles or forms always begin with outsiders and more or less force themselves on reluctant mainstream and authoritarian cultures. Lots of entertaining anecdotes, new angles on received history, and enlightening dot-connecting. Well read, too.
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“When dealing with music, the personal is the political, and always has been.” 1 likes
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