Love Notes: 10 Terrific Nonfiction Books About Music
If you love listening to music, I heartily recommend also reading nonfiction about music. Virtually any song or musical work is a work of collaboration between a group of people. And whenever people have to work together on a passion project, there are juicy stories. Behind-the-scenes peeks are but one benefit of reading nonfiction about music. Some genres of music, like classical and opera, can really benefit from context if you didn’t grow up listening to them or performing them. And even music you’re very familiar with may have connections to history and culture that you’ve never known about. Books truly enrich the experience of listening to music.
For a list as relatively short as this, I’ve endeavored to cast a wide net, genre-wise. I chose not to include any music memoirs; while great, they have their own vibe. There’s sure to be some music on this list you love, and there may even be some you think you hate. If you have an interest in developing a new taste within music, it’s definitely possible, and reading up first can help. Likewise, deepening knowledge about music you already love is fun. In any case, keep your streaming music service of choice close at hand when you read. Sometimes you’ll need to set these books down and listen.
Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh
If you consider yourself a well-rounded music fan with tastes that span genres, this book is a must-read. It’s a relatively compact but thorough primer on popular music that will connect the dots between the artists and sounds that preceded your current faves. An endeavor that might be dry from another writer, this book is rollicking and opinionated while being packed with information.
Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music by Alex Ross
Whether you’ve sat through an entire performance of the Ring cycle or you hear the “Ride of the Valkyries” and start singing “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!,” this book is utterly fascinating. So many people have projected meaning onto or extracted meaning from Wagner’s work that it demands deep consideration. And his work, tainted as it is by his antisemitism, continues to influence music and other art made today. This book is a monumental achievement in exploring the relationships between art, artist, politics, and culture.
May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem by Imani Perry
Anyone who thinks that music is divorced from politics hasn’t been paying attention ever. Union songs are but one example of music’s power to organize and influence. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem, is another. Since its creation in the early 20th century, this song has been a steady presence for decades of Black history. This book traces the song’s origin and its use in times of crisis and celebration.
Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS by Maria Sherman
Boy bands come and go. But people who dismiss music taken seriously by fan bases composed of primarily young women? They are unfortunately here to stay. That’s why books that take seemingly frivolous or inconsequential culture seriously are my jam. Touching on early boy bands like the Beatles and the Jackson 5, and following that lineage through to current superstars like BTS, this illustrated book will surely delight you and inform you about some bands who were before and/or after your own boy-band loving prime.
Why Karen Carpenter Matters by Karen Tongson
Like the above Larger than Life, this book, part of the Music Matters series, takes music many dismiss as corny seriously. Karen Carpenter doesn’t loom especially large in pop culture memory compared to the more bombastic musicians of her era. Many people know her story as tragic, a life cut short by an eating disorder. But this book expands on the sphere of Carpenter’s influence, centering the queer and other marginalized people who found truth in her work. It’s a touching detail in this memoir-biography hybrid that the author was named after the singer.
Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip Hop Edited by Jeff Berglund, Jan Johnson, and Kimberli Lee
This collection of essays traces the two-way street between Indigenous musicians who’ve had influence in pop music, as well as the ways pop music has affected the expressive forms of Native Americans. As an example, The Band, helmed by guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson, is a hugely influential group within Americana and country rock music. (Film fans should also check out Martin Scorsese’s documentary film The Last Waltz for more about The Band.) Robbie’s own roots, being Canadian and First Nations, informed this timeless music in ways this book illuminates in one of its essays.
Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib
Music fans should be reading absolutely everything Hanif Abdurraqib writes, period. He approaches all his subjects with deep generosity and respect, making observations personal and political, all written with a poet’s canny pen. Here he turns his ear to A Tribe Called Quest, a rap group known for incorporating jazz riffs into their music. He deftly situates their work within the rap landscape and the broader music scene with his astute, critical lens.
A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer
I am a complete opera dilettante. I’ve been to a few but have never quite known how to meaningfully take them in. As a person who loves drama and spectacle, opera really is a genre I should be into more. Luckily, the perfect book to convert me into a genuine fan exists. It’s an accessible introduction that will acquaint any casual listener to the concepts and terms opera fans need to know. Moreover, it shows that opera is not a static art form, but a richly evolving and ever-relevant mode of expression.
Monk! Thelonious, Pannonica, and the Friendship Behind a Musical Revolution by Youssef Daoudi
There’s something perfectly fitting to me, someone who hears jazz music with vaguely synesthetic visuals attached, about a graphic biography of a jazz legend. This book energetically chronicles the friendship between Thelonious Monk and Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a baroness of the Rothschild family. She was not only a friend to Monk but his long-time patron as well. This tribute to music and friendship is best enjoyed with Thelonious Monk’s music in the background.
Björk’s Homogenic by Emily MacKay
Any music fan who is a reader likely has some acquaintance with the 33 ⅓ series, with each petite volume dedicated to a single album. I could have chosen any number of these books, but I chose an album I particularly love from one of the musicians in my personal pantheon. Homogenic is an album that undercuts lots of presumptions — about electronic music’s potential, Björk’s pixie-ish persona, and the notion of the auteur in music. This book explores these ideas and more.
Music is great for its ability to fit any mood. Sometimes I’m all vibes, no thoughts, and I can certainly make a playlist for that occasion. Other times, as Boston famously sang, I want “More Than a Feeling.” I wish to be engaged and challenged, and reading more nonfiction about music helps me approach any piece of music as something worthy of deep thought and consideration. If you’ve read your way through this list, we’ve got even more music nonfiction recommendations. I hope you can find the books that amplify the soundtrack to your life.