Chatto & Windus, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Story of Music, By Howard Goodall

A well-meaning tour through 40,000 years of human sounds simply tries to do too much

After 70,000 years of world history, recounted by Andrew Marr on TV and in print, comes 40,000-odd years of music history, once again over eight episodes (starting 26 January) and also in book form. There's no denying that Howard Goodall (whose own music is familiar from Blackadder, QI etc) means well.

His 2006 attempt to make us all understand How Music Works amply demonstrated that. The problem is that's an awful lot of history to cram in to eight hours. The result: a 115,000-word book too facile for the audience most likely to engage with it but which will leave the casual listener, curiosity piqued by bleeding chunks of Bach, Beethoven and Bartok on Classic FM, floundering like a Grade I student asked to sight-read a piano concerto.

The story begins in the caves in Chauvet, France, where our ancestors sang "not just as an adjunct to communal ritual, but more crucially as a bat-like form of sonar to provide location bearings in the vast labyrinth of the cade - rather like a musical SatNav". The ability to recognise sounds, the direction from which they came, their differing timbres and pitches (friend or foe?), was crucial to the survival of Paleolithic man.

Today, a child's ability to sing enables the training of brain and memory, helping the development of spacial awareness. Nothing wrong with either point… except that promotional clips for the series reveal the inevitable inclusion of dramatic reconstruction. How much better when Jacob Bronowski and Kenneth Clark declaimed their own scripts to camera in the golden era of public broadcasting.

Telling the story of music requires only the music itself, suitable visuals and an engaging musician-storyteller able to explain complex ideas about pitch, structure, form and so on without patronising anyone. In print, Goodall is chatty and direct, seeking analogies (sometimes stretched, as in 15th-century plainsong and Mariah Carey) from today's music to get ideas across. But the information comes thick and fast – and in a vacuum. If the book is to make sense of itself, readers need to hear a major and minor third, the circle of fifths, the "Tristan" chord – words alone are meaningless. In short, The Story of Music cries out to be an ebook in the style of The Orchestra for iPad. Spotify lists are all well and good – but a book aimed at the musical novice requires aural examples on tap, as in a lecture.

Goodall whisks us through the development of music's building blocks (pitch and equal temperament: tricky, in words only) and gives a lightning tour of work by composers from Hildegard of Bingen in the 11th century to today, along with the influence of patrons such as Louis XIV and Prince Esterhazy. By the breathless final chapter, many (including the Beatles) get little more than a name check.

Musical discourse gets so little airtime, with books ever-thinner on the ground, and this seems a wasted opportunity. Sadly, I think we would find that Yehudi Menuhin's The Music of Man, his 30-year-old series and accompanying book, did it rather better.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power