tomes \\ rant

Booksellers tend to arrange and display their wares by category: fiction, self-improvement, reference, philosophy, science, language, travel, cooking, sport, biography, religion, gardening, cinema, art, photography. Even music, sometimes.

Now, perhaps my formal education on the subject has made me biased, but I find that the Music section in a bookstore too often stands out among the ‘interests & activities’ categories as desperately lacking in tomes of an instructional, technical or analytical nature, volumes that seek to educate the reader in the craft of creating musical sound. The Music category is rich with thick biographies of big names from the past 200 years (and even thicker autobiographies of big names from the past 40 years), and the shelves sport a few of brand-name-laden hardcover magazines of catalogue guitars of the past century. There are even scientific and philosophical explorations of the experience of listening, or the power of music to heal or whatever, and self-help books for aspiring artists struggling with imposter syndrome or writer’s block, and ethnographic essays comparing the role of music and dance across cultures.

And that’s all great. But hell, none of these books will guide you to improve your technical skills in performing, composing or improvisation. I’d wager that almost none of the books in the Music section of your local Australian bookshop (broadly excluding those that specifically deal with dead white composers or ‘the classical canon’) contain anything that even loosely resembles five parallel lines, or a tablature grid, or a list of recommended writing materials, or a crude structural map of pop song form.

Of course, it is easy to find such material online and/or in (the ever dwindling number of music stores) in metro areas. One could launch into a feature-length rant about why certain genres of music-related literary content may be well represented in bookshops while others aren’t, the but speculative hows and and whys of this problem don’t really matter. For me, the issue is that while some of the books in the cooking section of your local bookstore will teach you to prepare delicious meals, and some of the flipbooks in the design section will help you improve the layout of your living room and offer some insight into technical concepts of visual layout, it’s very likely that none of the books in the music section will help you finish planning out that oboe solo someone asked you to write, or identify the different applications of chord voicings and extensions for different genres of pop through the ages, or respell the accidentals for transposing instruments in that wind orchestra score which is due next week, or teach you to make sampled strings sound more authentic.

Don’t get me wrong many aspects of the world’s aural/oral history are not so easily captured on paper, and the field of music absolutely comprises the content of bookstore music sections: lineages of cultural icons, lifestyle stories, auditory phenomenology, social rituals, funny anecdotes and greatest hits. But it’s also a field of practice: of doing as much as knowing, and there is a wealth of texts out there that engage with music as a craft, science and/or artform. I think it’s worth keeping a few of these tomes on the shelf.