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4.7 out of 5 stars
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4.7 out of 5 stars
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This is a review of the original hardback edition. This is the book that accompanied the five-episode TV series, but the book has eight chapters, as well as a preface, overture, and epilogue. In his preface Goodall informs the reader, "This is not an old-fashioned History of Western Music ... And this is more than the usual `book of the series', too." He includes much detail that could not or did not make the TV final cut, but also some personal reflections on such issues as why music affects us the way that it does.

Goodall also explains the background to the TV series and how he tested his own five suggestions for discoveries that changed musical history with other musicians. Invariably they came up with their own (but agreed by-and-large with his). He writes, "I qualified my choice by saying that I was interested in changes to music that happened in one place at one time: one day the invention wasn't there, the next day it was." Therefore, we do not have the invention of the symphony or the concerto, or of the violin.

Goodall postulates that the development of music today and of all the last millennium relies on its being written down. Consequently, he sees the invention of musical notation by Guido of Arezzo, the subject of the first chapter, as the biggest bang of all. The other four big bangs are the invention of opera; the discovery of equal temperament; the invention of the piano; and the onset of recorded sound. As with all of the five bangs, not only does Goodall explain the build up to the explosion, the fuses of which have a greater or lesser length, he follows through with the subsequent results, their fallout.

The other chapters are no less interesting. In `Vatican Secrets' he gives a short personal view on the power of music, commencing with Allegri's `Miserere'. (I admit to being reduced to tears after reading about the boy and his drum at the workshop held by the Halle Orchestra's percussion section at a special needs school.)

Then, in `Je Suis Compositeur' he describes the process of composition. Describing himself as a Protestant Humanist, he nevertheless allows music a religious force, a bearer of echoes from earlier prehistoric times: "It may be our last remaining link, in our most concrete worlds, with a way of being that we once enjoyed and have long since left behind."

The third extra chapter is called `Chosen People', which comprises a short essay on the Jewish contributions to classical music. Here Goodall compares Mahler's to Bruckner's symphonies, but I do not recognise Goodall's uncomplimentary descriptions of the latter's: to me Bruckner's symphonies evince the very material that makes music such a powerful force.

It's not all plain sailing. I am not musically trained, and so, for me, Goodall failed to explain the theory of Pythagoras's comma clearly enough. The thirteenth note may be "dangerously, uncannily, teeth-gratingly close to the very first note", but WHY? And why THESE twelve notes? I was often frustrated by many assertions begging more questions that failed to be answered. For example, if a clavichord is "basically a hammer dulcimer", then why is it so quiet when played?

The book comes with plenty of illustrations, but alas they are all in black and white, which is a bit pointless when describing the red and yellow lines adopted by Guido of Arezzo for his F and C pitches, and we miss too the opportunity to admire the beauty that medieval illuminated manuscripts often possess. Moreover, many of the illustrations are of poor quality. And we are let down too when Goodall gets technical: for instance, when describing the internal workings of Bartolomeo Cristofori's pianoforte, there is no image provided of his innovation.

Finally, in his epilogue, Goodall looks to the future, remarking how "Moving from one century or millennium to another [the book was published in 2000] has put us in a mood of appraisal and prediction." He prognosticates on classical music concerts and cathedral choirs, admitting that his views on each of these traditions contradict the other, but in my opinion he fails to square the circle he has created. But it is this manner of Goodall including his personal opinions among the stories he has to tell - he is right, this book is indeed no "old-fashioned History of Western Music" - that enlivens its pages and engages the reader. That is this book's strength.

A list of further reading and an index bring the book to an end.
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on 28 April 2016
A very clever and insightful book which elucidates many points from the TV series (several years ago).
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on 14 November 2012
It would help one enjoy the book even more if one has a bit of background on history of Western Music, but not necessary. History text books record events in chronological order, but big events may evolve over time. This is where the author excels in telling the stories. He jumped through time from Ancient Greek to modern era and picked up five important events. In five longer chapters out of eight, he tells the stories of each invention. I shall not repeat what he told, but I would say each that invention is described in enough detail and not too technical to put readers off. To sum up - well written.

In three other shorter chapters, the author writes about the secret musical score kept by the Vatican, one of his experience composing a musical work, and the influence of Jews to Western music. He also emphasized that the effect of music to any person is amplified at the right time and place for a particular piece of music. These shorter chapters are not Big Bang but are probably of the author's favorite topics.

A few more pictures would be even better, but I am merely nitpicking here.

I still wonder why musical notation was not invented earlier, since human culture is based on passing knowledge from generation to generation by having things written down in words.

I finished the book in under ten days, and my time for TV watching during that few days had been greatly reduced. This is my rating to how enjoyable reading this book is.
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on 15 October 2001
I originally saw the C4 series of the same title and was impressed enough to buy the book of the series. However the book is much more than a printed representation of the series. There is a lot more detail than could be presented in a one hour slot as well as interesting diversions and personal insights from the author as well. Mr Goodall has an excellent writing style (rather like his delivery on screen) and the whole book is suffused with his wit and humour-you can almost hear him delivering the text! The subject matter could have easily been 'stuffily' presented as often happens when writing about music, but Big Bangs was always refreshing and fun to read.
This is a superb and long overdue book. It's perfectly pitched (ha,ha!)at the lay person with a strong interest in music whether it be classical or popular. I'm now looking out for the hard backed version to keep for posterity and there will be a few copies on my Christmas shopping list.
Buy this and read it over and over again. Well done Howard!
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on 14 August 2016
Nothing Special
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on 22 December 2016
Engaging writing. Wonderful stories. Fascinating.
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on 14 October 2000
Howard Goodall writes about 5 breakthroughs in western music in the last thousand years; inventions that changed the world of music forever. His passion for the subject is contagious and some passages are truly inspired. The book is historically accurate and yet innovative in its approach. If you love music, you'll love this book.
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on 16 May 2001
This book is both amusing and educational, it outlines the 5 most significant events that had an impact on the world of music, such as the invention of music notation to the invention of the piano. For anyone doing a music course this is excellent revision material outlining the history of music.
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on 12 August 2014
Confession - I bought this book because I had already read a borrowed copy and loved it. I have friends I need to lend it to so they can enjoy it too!

But it's a matter of taste - my mother, also an accomplished musician - disliked the lighter style and was unmoved by the topics, except for the chapter on what it means to be a composer (I also loved that one). I found the clear and friendly recap of what are really earth-shaking changes that gave us the architecture of harmony, symphonies, classical music and some of the greatest joy in my life really fun to read, and, I hope, to reread. Especially because it will be so easy now to go to one chapter at a time, or dive into the whole book again, from start to finish.
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on 18 October 2000
The infectious enthusiasm of Goodall takes the reader on a thorough trip through music concepts and events that impact cultural history well beyond the arts. The author's broad brush offers a sweeping landscape that is punctuated by bright details and contrast. Had to order this long distance (not yet available in US): well worth it. The only detracting observation is that the title "Big Bangs" doesn't let the unsuspecting know it's about music, rather than universal science.
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