From unflinching memoirs and gritty exposes, to introspective compendiums and historical deep dives, the music book genre is any song-lovers’ perfect elixir to lockdown mundanity. Though lacking the musty aroma and craven solitude of your local library, The Mic has compiled a browsing list of some of the best picks that the genre has to offer.
Whilst the arts industry has taken a real hit amidst the current social climate, the creative nature of the industry has continued to carry many of us through the year. Music, film, art, and literature have been a vital beacon of hope, and created a space for thousands of people to grow and heal. The music industry may seem to be all about how one interacts with the listening element of music, but there are many more interactions to be had including the world of music reading and publishing.
Publishing blossomed in scale in the mid-fifteenth century when the first developments of mechanical techniques allowed for printed music to become widely available. It was here that the term ‘music publisher’ was originally born, referring to publishers who issued hand-copied or printed sheet music. The first use of music printing can be similarly dated back to 1465 with a set of liturgical chants – Christian music that was written to express either personal or communal beliefs regarding life and faith. Ottaviano Petrucci championed modern music printing with his first collection entitled: Harmonice Musices Odehecaton, which contained just shy of one-hundred polyphonic compositions. However, it was only wealthy noblemen who commissioned such printings, and thus the printing and publishing industry failed to grow rapidly until the early-eighteenth century.
‘Whilst music publishing began as a means to reproduce sheet music faster, it quickly blossomed into its own genre of literature.’
Music publishing as we know it today originated in New York’s iconic Tin Pan Alley in the late-nineteenth century. Here housed a bustling community of publishers and songwriters connected by their commitment to creating and releasing popular music outside of the classical genres. This vibrant district dominated the popular music scene of the United States, and many household names including composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, owe much of their success to Tin Pan Alley.
Whilst music publishing began as a means to reproduce and create sheet music faster, it quickly blossomed into its own genre of literature. The likes of Coral Press, Interlink Publishing and many more allowed for a progression of musical biographies, autobiographies and stories based in a musical world. Today the genre is a vast and vivid, offering a selection of works on almost any artist, genre, and era you could covet, but this makes picking your next read more difficult than ever. Amidst a year where the creative industries have been vital in maintaining our sanity, The Mic has hand-picked a list of fifteen of the best the genre has to offer – divided into categories for ease.
Autobiography and Biography
1. Beneath the Underdog – Charles Mingus
This touching autobiography offers a shy glimpse into the incredibly turbulent life of the beloved Jazz musician Charles Mingus. Beneath the Underdog is arguably one of the greatest autobiographical fiction works, and has Mingus’ mirthful personality injected into every page – a delightful read.
2. Miles: The Autobiography – Miles Davis
This autobiography is an absolute must for not only Jazz lovers, but for those who wish to read more social commentary on racism in America throughout the twenty-first century. Rich in history and charisma, Miles Davis doesn’t aim to come across as a likeable man, but to instead document the truths of being a black musician in the height of the Civil Rights movement.
3. Ziggyology: A Brief History of Ziggy Stardust – Simon Goddard
This short novel explores one of David Bowie’s greatest transformations, Ziggy Stardust, and how this alien-like messiah fell to Earth and created a prodigy in the face of adversity. A truly beautiful narrative that offers a fresh and creative take on the classical literary form of the biography.
4. Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed the World – Norma Lebrecht
This book covers a history of Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Mahler and how he approached writing his renowned symphonies. It breaks down each of his ten symphonies and a topic that often feels too ‘educational’ in manner that is charming, informative, and insightful. A recommended read for any lover of music who wishes to gain some philosophical context into the Mahler symphonies.
5. How Shostakovich Changed My Mind – Stephen Johnson
Acclaimed music broadcaster Stephen Johnson offers a host of heart-wrenching anecdotes on how Shostakovich helped him cope with his struggles with Bipolar. Though a short read, the text is heavy and emotionally charged; narrating a true story on how music can literally save a life.
6. Idiot Verse – Keaton Henson
Though not a biography in a typical sense, Keaton Henson’s Idiot Verse is instead a harrowing and heart-breaking accidental overview into his life through the medium of poetry. In sheer weight and depth, this collection is one that the likes of Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski would be proud of.
7. Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution – Sara Marcus
The seminal text from Marcus is a biography on the members of Riot Grrrl and how they shaped 90’s feminism with their progressive views during the wave of grunge and punk rock. She illuminates the movement as an undefinable subculture of young women that were unsatisfied with social and cultural power hierarchies, and offers a timeless insight into the volatile era.
8. Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk (1978-1984) – Simon Reynolds
A must read for any post-punk fan, the esteemed Rip It Up and Start Again provides a crisp, easy-to-follow narrative whilst still being packed to the brim with information. Incredibly comprehensive and broadly exhaustive, it follows the scene from its modest beginnings up until the contemporary revival.
9. American Hardcore: A Tribal History – Steven Blush
This book offers a documentation of the early 80’s American hardcore scene via the atypical medium of interviews. Blush himself was a show promoter and offers vital, gripping first-hand accounts of the antics of the early hardcore scene. An essential and informative read for any fan of the genre.
10. Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll – Peter Bebergal
A refreshing and interesting take on the Rock and Roll scene, Bebergal explores the rousing role of the occult in the iconic genre and how the two may be intrinsically intertwined. It presents the music industry from a completely different angle, and is a thoroughly unique and unforgettable read.
11. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground (1981-1991) –Michael Azerrad
An essential insight into the formations of the Indie genre, Azerrad delves beneath the face of popular American music and into the underground world of authentic indie; carefully following its growth into the beloved genre that we know and love today. Revelatory and tender, it is a must read for indie fans.
12. DIY: The Rise of Lo-fi Culture – Amy Spencer
An ideal read for those previously unfamiliar with zines and the DIY industry, Spencer provides a complete history of the growth and politics surrounding DIY culture in the UK and USA. A perfect balance of detail and accessibility, this book is sure to spark an interest in even unlikely lo-fi fans.
13. How It Feels to Be Free – Ruth Feldstein
A vital read for anyone interested in twentieth century US cultural history, Feldstein examines the immense impact of popular art on social change and unpicks the narrative that “culture was a key battleground in the civil rights movement.” Though perhaps more scholarly than other texts on this list, ‘How It Feels to Be Free’ is more than accessible for all readers, and sheds important light on a marginalised group of performers and their historical significance.
Music 101 (General Guides to Music)
14. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century – Alex Ross
This 2009 book from ‘New Yorker’ music critic Alex Ross provides a complete over on classical music in the twentieth century. It makes for a riveting work of political and cultural history and provides a layman’s entry point into the realm of Western classical music. Covering everything from Stravinsky to Schoenberg, it brings excitement and accessibility to a perhaps more shrouded genre.
15. Last Interview Series – Selected Authors
The Last Interview series offers a host of candid interviews with not only musicians such as Lou Reed and David Bowie, but authors such as J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway. Bringing together the work of multiple writers, it’s a delightfully charming and approachable way of getting to better know some of your favourite musical icons.
Written by: Amber Frost Edited by: Olivia Stock