A Subversive History


By Ted Gioia

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"A dauntingly ambitious, obsessively researched" (Los Angeles Times) global history of music that reveals how songs have shifted societies and sparked revolutions.

Histories of music overwhelmingly suppress stories of the outsiders and rebels who created musical revolutions and instead celebrate the mainstream assimilators who borrowed innovations, diluted their impact, and disguised their sources. In Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia reclaims the story of music for the riffraff, insurgents, and provocateurs.

Gioia tells a four-thousand-year history of music as a global source of power, change, and upheaval. He shows how outcasts, immigrants, slaves, and others at the margins of society have repeatedly served as trailblazers of musical expression, reinventing our most cherished songs from ancient times all the way to the jazz, reggae, and hip-hop sounds of the current day.

Music: A Subversive History is essential reading for anyone interested in the meaning of music, from Sappho to the Sex Pistols to Spotify.


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Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.


I accept chaos. I’m not sure whether it accepts me.



I’ll admit it. I cringe when I hear the term music history. The phrase summons up images of long-dead composers, smug men in wigs and waistcoats. I hear the refrain of a stately dance in waltz meter performed for some decrepit king and his court. People are dancing without touching, merely making stiff bows and curtsies in each other’s direction. Even the musicians struggle to stifle their yawns.

You may have similar notions about music history. But why? In all fairness, the institutions that preserve and propagate the inherited traditions of our musical culture don’t intend to be boring. But they do crave respectability, and this zeal to present an image of stiff decorum imparts a palpable sense of tedium to almost everything they touch. Music is drained of its vitality, and at times even becomes a chore. Just as you go to the dentist to take care of your teeth, you show up dutifully at the symphony to burnish your cultural street cred. But look around you at your next visit to the concert hall, and count how many people appear to be sleeping in their high-priced seats.

This pervasive ennui is a symptom of a deeper problem with music history. Boredom, in itself, is no crime. Many subjects are inherently boring, and their exponents even pride themselves on their monotonous routines. I once took a class in cost accounting, and Shakespeare himself, brought back to life and given a CPA certificate, couldn’t have made that textbook enjoyable. My statistics class was worse, situating itself more than two standard deviations outside the realm of the mildly interesting. Even in the arts and humanities—spheres of human endeavor whose very destiny is to delight and astonish—many academic journals will kill any submission in peer review if it fails to achieve a mandated level of obstinate dreariness. These fields cultivate boredom the same way a farmer grows tobacco—who cares if the crop is deadening, so long as it sells? No one expects otherwise.

So I don’t object to the boredom of conventional music history because I demand excitement. I object, rather, to the false notions that undergird the tedium. When we celebrate the songs of previous eras, the respectable music of cultural elites gets almost all the attention, while the subversive efforts of outsiders and rebels fall from view. The history books downplay or hide essential elements of music that are considered disreputable or irrational—for example, its deep connections to sexuality, magic, trance and alternative mind states, healing, social control, generational conflict, political unrest, even violence and murder. They whitewash key elements of a four-thousand-year history of disruptors and insurgents creating musical revolutions, instead celebrating assimilators within the mainstream power structure who borrowed these innovations while diluting their impact and disguising their sources. More than historical accuracy is lost in the process. The very sources from which creativity and new techniques arise are distorted and misrepresented. A key theme of this book is that the shameful elements of songs—their links to sex, violence, magic, ecstatic trance, and other disreputable matters—are actually sources of power, serving as the engines of innovation in human music-making. When we cleanse the historical record of their presence, we lose our grasp on how our most cherished songs arose in the first place.

The real history of music is not respectable. Far from it. Neither is it boring. Breakthroughs almost always come from provocateurs and insurgents, and they don’t just change the songs we sing, but often shake up the foundations of society. When something genuinely new and different arrives on the music scene, those in positions of authority fear it and work to repress it. We all know this because it has happened in our own lifetimes. We have seen firsthand how music can challenge social norms and alarm upholders of the status quo, whether political bosses, religious leaders, or just anxious parents fretting about some song bellowing ominously from behind a teenager’s bedroom door. Yet this same thing has been happening since the dawn of human history, and maybe even longer—although you won’t get told that side of the story in Music 101, or from the numerous well-funded music institutions devoted to protecting their respectability and the highbrow pretensions of their mission statements.

Those fretting parents are delighted with this kind of sanitized approach to music appreciation, as are those within the cultural ecosystem who see their own status rising in tandem with the prestige and authority of the traditions they uphold. They gain a kind of secondhand luster from the cleansed, purified vision of music-making they promote. Even rude and vulgar songs are made dignified as part of this process. But the whole endeavor is a distortion, no less a lie for the pleasing patina of respectability it imparts to the dangerous soundtracks of the past. At every stage in human history, music has been a catalyst for change, challenging conventions and conveying coded messages—or, not infrequently, delivering blunt, unambiguous ones. It has given voice to individuals and groups denied access to other platforms for expression, so much so that, in many times and places, freedom of song has been as important as freedom of speech, and far more controversial.

Yet there’s a second stage to this process, and it is just as interesting and deserving of study. This is the mechanism by which these disruptive musical intrusions into the social order enter the mainstream. The dangerous rebel gets turned, after a few years or decades, into a respected tribal elder. We have lived through this process, too, but even those of us who have seen it firsthand may struggle to explain how it happened. When Elvis Presley appeared on TV in 1956, CBS was reluctant to show what he was doing with his hips—those gyrating movements were too dangerous for mainstream audiences to see. Yet just a few years later, in 1970, Elvis not only got invited to the White House, but even received a badge from the hand of President Richard Nixon making him an unofficial agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. (Adding to the bizarre tenor of the event, Presley may have been stoned when he received this dubious honor.) Parents were shocked by their first encounters with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but those bad boys would eventually get knighted and turn into Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Mick Jagger. Bob Dylan was a leader of the counterculture in 1966, but honored as the Nobel laureate in literature in 2016. Straight Outta Compton, by hip-hoppers N.W.A., got banned by many retailers and radio stations in 1988, and was even denounced by the FBI, but that same album was chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for its cultural merit in 2017. What strange social evolution allows a radical outsider to turn into an official hero of the mainstream? Yet this process has been repeated throughout history. In fact, this very insistence on mainstreaming and assimilating radical music is the single biggest reason why the historical accounts are so misleading. The officially ‘cleansed’ public image is promulgated—whether we are dealing with the Beatles, or back in a previous day, Sappho or the troubadours or Bach—while the disreputable past is shuffled offstage and out of view.

Musical innovation happens from the bottom up and the outside in, rather than vice versa; those with power and authority usually oppose these musical innovations, but with time, whether through co-optation or transformation, the innovations become mainstream, and then the cycle begins again. The authority figures who impose their preferred meanings on our messy music have changed over the centuries. In the past, they might have been kings or prophets or esteemed philosophers. In the current day, they can often seem nameless and faceless, at least from the perspective of most music fans—for example, the marketing department for the local symphony, designers of school curricula, or judges at music competitions. But in every case, the tools they employ to prevent the incursion of disruptive new ways of music-making follow a predictable path, starting with exclusion, if not outright censorship, and when that fails—as it so often does—shifting to more devious methods of containment and repurposing. Upholders of the status quo really have no choice except to push back. The songs of outsiders and the underclass have always posed a threat, and thus must be purified or reinterpreted. The power of music, whether to put listeners into a trance or rouse them to action, has always been feared, and thus must be controlled. The close connection of songs to sex and violence has always shocked, and thus must be regulated. And the narratives that chronicle and define our musical lives are inevitably written and rewritten in recognition of these imperatives.

The scope of this book is the full history of music, even beginning in the pre-human natural soundscapes, whose danger and power prefigure so much to come, all the way to the reality show singing contests and viral videos of the current day. In this kind of history, there’s room for both Mozart and Sid Vicious, and everything in between—along with minstrels, rappers, holy rollers, shamans, troubadours, courtesans, singing cowboys, Homeric bards, chanting street vendors, and many others outside the concert hall tradition. I’m not trying to be flashy or fashionably eclectic: we need to cast our net wide in order to grasp the forces at work. My approach is roughly chronological, but the connections across eras will become increasingly clear as we proceed. The early chapters will provide opportunities for me to share conceptual tools and insights that will be pressure-tested in subsequent sections of the book, and will, I hope, prove their value in resolving long-standing debates about key figures in music history as different as Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Johnson. If I am correct, these methodologies can also assist us in the present day, both in predicting how songs might evolve in the future and in creating a healthy musical ecosystem in a digital age that often seems intent on devaluing artists and their works.

As these comments might suggest, the subversive forces remain largely the same over time, despite shifting tastes and technologies. They are both shameful and powerful, as well as ever present in human society, if sometimes unspoken or pushed out to the fringes. They can’t be halted, nor can they really be exiled permanently from the mainstream. Yet misleading narratives can be constructed around them, and again and again those deceptions enter into the official accounts. In this book I attempt to cut through these sanctioned interpretations and recover the fractious reality too often excluded from our view.

These inquiries will bring us into the heart of a profound mystery: Where do these changes in music come from? Why are the sources of innovation so closely linked to shame and secrecy? Why do power brokers need to turn, again and again, to outsiders and excluded groups for the songs that eventually define norms and behavior for the broader society? What is it about music that makes its historical evolution and pedigree so different from what we find in other modes of cultural expression? And why does the cycle repeat with such brutal persistence over such broad expanses of time and geography? These are vital questions, and I hope to answer them before bringing this expansive study to a conclusion.

What we learn will also force us to revise our notions of the aesthetics of music, its capacities and consequences. Old-fashioned concepts of the role of song in our lives, emphasizing its transcendence or purposeless beauty, will be tested and found wanting. In fact, we will learn that many of the most influential philosophical systems about music came about as part of persistent attempts by elites to halt the spread of innovation and enervate the inherent power of song. As we uncover the actual course of causes and effects, our grasp of what music really does and means will be permanently altered.

More than ever, we need a subversive history of music. We need it both to subvert the staid accounts that misrepresent the past as well as to grasp the subversive quality inherent in these catalytic sounds in our own time. This book aims to provide that alternative narrative. But the goal isn’t to be iconoclastic or controversial. I have no interest in adopting a provocative revisionist pose so I can stand out from the crowd. I simply want to do justice to the subject. I want to tell the real story of music as a change agent, as a source of disruption and enchantment in human life.

I started work on an alternative approach to music history more than twenty-five years ago, but back then I didn’t realize the scope of what I would uncover. My starting point was much simpler than where I ended up. My core belief back then—unchanged today, so many years later—was that music is a force of transformation and empowerment, a catalyst in human life. My curiosity was piqued by the many ways songs had enhanced and altered the lives of individuals throughout history, and especially the great masses of people who don’t get much visibility in surviving accounts. I didn’t exclude kings and lords, or popes and patrons, from my purview. But I was perhaps even more interested in peasants and plebeians, slaves and bohemians, renegades and outcasts. What did their music sound like? Even better, what did it do?

To answer these questions, I had to uncover a whole range of different sources outside the realm of academic music history. During the first decade of my research, I floundered in my attempts to circumscribe these issues. To answer even simple questions, I found I had to immerse myself, at a surprisingly deep level, in primary documents and academic literature from folklore, mythology, classics, philosophy, theology and scriptural exegesis, social history, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, Egyptology, Sinology, Assyriology, medieval studies, travel literature, and various other fields and topics, as well as a formidable amount of literature produced by music historians and musicologists. As a result, more than fifteen years elapsed from the start of my research until I published the first fruits—my two books Work Songs and Healing Songs, both released in 2006. Another decade elapsed before I completed the third book in my trilogy on the music of everyday life, Love Songs.

But by this time I saw that a general history of music needed to be written that encompassed the full range of surprising findings I had uncovered during this twenty-five-year endeavor. I won’t try to summarize here the unexpected and sometimes disturbing things I learned on my long, strange trip. But my goals are simple ones and ought to be shared here at the outset. My aim is to celebrate music as a source of creation, destruction, and transformation. I affirm songs as a source of artistry, but will also insist on taking them seriously as a social force and conduit of power, even as a kind of technology for societies that lack microchips and spaceships. I want to cast light on the neglected spheres of music that survive outside the realms of power brokers, religious institutions, and social elites, and explore how songs enrich the day-to-day lives of small communities, families, and individuals. Above all, I hope to show how music can topple established hierarchies and rules, subverting tired old conventions and asserting bold new ones.

Put another way, music is not just a soundtrack in the background of life, but has repeatedly entered the foreground, even altering social and cultural currents that would seem resistant to something as elusive and intangible as a song. It almost seems like magic, and maybe it really is.

All these things have happened repeatedly in the past, as well as in our own lifetimes, and will recur again in the future. This is their story.


The Origin of Music as a Force of Creative Destruction

I’m not surprised the whole thing started with a huge bang, not just a big downbeat in bar one, but the biggest one of them all. How fitting that this initial pulse of rhythm came as part of an explosion both destructive and creative. That’s a symbol for all the later musical outbursts charted in these pages, those unruly sounds that shatter the existing order, cause turbulence and even chaos, only gradually coalescing into a new stability.

Our original downbeat took place some 13.7 billion years ago, the proverbial Big Bang in a still unfolding composition. But if matter explodes in the universe and no one is around to hear it—maybe couldn’t hear it, if it took place in a surrounding vacuum—is it really a bang? Do our histories even falsify this first beat, which really possessed no bang at all, not even an intergalactic whimper? Perhaps we should consider this opening galaxy-forming gambit as akin to the silent wave of the conductor’s baton before the concert begins. A look, a nod, a quick movement, and we are off…

That universal symphony continues even today, but as cosmic background microwave radiation, an almost silent echo, barely detectable even with the most finely tuned instruments. Yet it still makes music, even in a vacuum. I note that the scientists who discovered the faint reverberations of the Big Bang first heard it over the radio. A lot of strange things happened on the radio in 1964—from the British Invasion to Louis Armstrong topping the chart with “Hello Dolly”—but this was the strangest of them all: Tune in to the right station and you can hear the origin of the universe! These late-arriving listeners for the longest-running live musical broadcast wisely realized that a hit song needs a suitable title, and their new—but very old—discovery finally received one when they published their findings the following year: “A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second.” That title, announcing the strange fact that somebody finally heard the bang a few billion years after it banged, was too long to fit on a jukebox label, but sufficient to earn a Nobel Prize for Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson.

But what modern science tells us simply repeats the Nada Brahma—that affirmation that the world is sound—of ancient Indian spirituality. In Hindu iconography, Shiva is even depicted as holding a damaru, or hourglass-shaped drum, in the moment of creation, a little bang doing the work of the big one surmised by physicists. This same vision of musical genesis is supported by countless creation myths around the world, with their tracing of ultimate origins back to cosmological compositions. More than one thousand references to music can be found in the Bible—in Judeo-Christian tradition, no physical icon or relic can come close to matching the potency of sound as a pathway to the divine and a source of transformative energy. Sometimes the power of music is brutally destructive—for example, the trumpet blasts of the Israelites sending the walls of Jericho tumbling to the ground—but more often, sound, in the Bible and in other traditions, is associated with creation and transformation. “In the Hebrew ‘Genesis’ the creating word is spoken,” explains Natalie Curtis, one of the first scholars to write about Native American songs. “In nearly every Indian myth the creator sings things into life.” In Australia, writes Bruce Chatwin in The Songlines, “Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterfalls—and so singing the world into existence.” Pythagoras turned this almost universal mythology into philosophy when, holding up a stone, he told his students: “This is frozen music.”1

It’s worth noting how rarely myths describe music originating as entertainment or works of artistic expression. Those categories may describe how we view songs in the current day, but our oldest ancestors knew something we ought to remember and which should be the starting point for all histories of song: music is power. Sound is the ultimate source of genesis, broadly defined, as well as metamorphosis and annihilation. A song can contain a cataclysm.

Science tells the same story, whether we peer into the depths of the universe or study the world at hand. From the start, waves of sound came not just from a primal explosion, but from the smallest particles of matter. In the heart of the atom we find vibrations of extraordinary speed—up to one hundred trillion times per second—creating a tone some twenty octaves above the range of our hearing. Over the years, a host of serious researchers and borderline crackpots—Ernst Chladni, Fabre d’Olivet, Charles Kellogg, Hans Jenny, Robert Monroe, Alfred Tomatis, and others—have demonstrated surprising and sometimes enchanting relations between our intangible music and the surrounding physical world. And in 1934, scientists at the University of Cologne discovered that sound waves sent through fluid can create flashes of light inside bubbles, visible to the naked eye and bearing an uncanny resemblance to the stars in the heavens. This property of sound—now known as sonoluminescence—is accompanied by intense pressure and high temperature coinciding with bubble collapse and the release of energy. Here is the littlest bang of all, if you will. As with the creation myths, sound has become visible.

As matter coalesced and cooled following that inaugural Big Bang, larger sounds and rhythms were superimposed on this microscopic chorus. Just as the cosmos offers its astral soundscape, the earth below supplies a terrestrial rhythm section. This is the ultimate ground beat: the movements of terra firma are not haphazard rumblings, but follow set rhythms—even today our seismographs can detect ongoing and consistent periods of vibration lasting between 53.1 and 54.7 minutes, producing a tone twenty octaves below the capacity of the human ear to hear. Indeed, each of the four ancient elements—earth, air, fire, water—conveys its own particular musical personality, made manifest in the crack of thunder, the roar of waves, the steady drone of the waterfall, the sporadic crash of a falling boulder or tree, and other natural events large and small.

These inanimate sounds were matched by their earliest organic counterpoints, a living orchestra constructed from the rich vocalizations of animals, birds, and insects. “Each creature appears to have its own sonic niche (channel, or space) in the frequency spectrum… occupied by no others at that particular moment,” writes musical ecologist Bernie Krause, who sees this aural territoriality as the foundation for the earliest human musical compositions. The first hunting and gathering societies must have paid close attention to this ever-changing aural tapestry—shifting every few meters, every few minutes. Long before aesthetic considerations came to the fore, the Darwinian struggle for survival ensured that our progenitors were careful listeners of their ambient soundscape.2

Krause describes a memorable encounter with an elder of the Nez Perce tribe named Angus Wilson, who chided him one day: “You white people know nothing about music. But I’ll teach you something about it if you want.” The next morning, Krause found himself led to the bank of a stream in northeastern Oregon, where he was motioned to sit quietly on the ground. After a chilly wait, a breeze picked up, and suddenly his surroundings were filled with the sound of a pipe organ chord—a remarkable occurrence, since no instrument was in sight. Wilson brought him over to the water’s edge and pointed to a group of reeds, broken at different lengths by wind and ice. “He took out his knife,” Krause later recalled, “and cut one at the base, whittled some holes, brought the instrument to his lips and began to play a melody. When he stopped, he said, ‘This is how we learned our music.’”3

Lynne Kelly, an Australian researcher, encountered a similar surprise when her friend Nungarrayi of the Warlpiri tribe explained that even trees, bushes, and grasses can be identified by their songs. “I found this hard to believe,” Kelly later explained, “but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible.” That afternoon, when she began listening to vegetation, she found that the passing breeze imparted a distinctive aural soundscape to the trees around her. “The eucalypt to my left, the acacias in front, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds. I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt.… The experience convinced me that the sound of plants, animals, moving water, rock types when struck and many other aspects of the environment can be taught through song in a way that is impossible in writing.”4

Biologist David George Haskell has trained students how to hear this tree music, and as an entry point he advises them to wait until a rainstorm, when the melodies are easiest to discern. Some present the listener with “a splatter of metallic sparks,” others “a low, clean, woody thump,” or “a speed-typist’s clatter.” When teaching ornithology, he issues a challenge to the class: “Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear?” Their homework is to “go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds.” For him, “it’s an almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them.” Moreover, the music of nature guides us through life cycles and seasonal patterns. “Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice,” Haskell explains, especially when the soft spring leaves grow stiff and brittle with the approach of winter.5 As we shall soon see, this same cyclical process from life to death (and back again) has shaped human music-making for thousands of years.

These stories make clear that a natural history of sound preceded its social or aesthetic history. You simply can’t understand the latter without paying close attention to the former. For our earliest ancestors, this was a matter of survival, plain and simple. If they paid attention to the wrong soundscape, they might not survive another day.

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  • “[Gioia] uses the familiar scheme of cyclical rejuvenation through transformation as a mechanism to consider the whole history of music, from the sounds of the primordial world to electronic dance music today, in his latest and most ambitious book. . . . Smart but readable.”

    New York Times Book Review
  • “[A] sweeping study. . . . The author aims to subvert our ideas about music history. . . . Gioia challenges notions of progress based solely on aesthetic or stylistic innovation . . . characteriz[ing] music history as a cyclical power struggle with shifting battle lines.”—Larry Blumenfeld, Wall Street Journal
  • “I can’t speak highly enough about Music: A Subversive History. . . . [Gioia] is always fun to read. . . . Gioia remains something of an outsider critic, convinced that the passion for destruction can be a creative passion.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
  • “An entirely new way to look at how music evolved.”
     —Rosa Inocencio Smith, The Atlantic
  • "A dauntingly ambitious, obsessively researched labor of cultural provocation."—Robert Christgau, Los Angeles Times
  • “In the past, [Gioia has] written a series of acclaimed books about jazz, but Music: A Subversive History is by some distance the most wide-ranging and provocative thing he’s come up with.”
     —Alexis Petridis, Guardian
  • “In carefully examining its ‘subversive’ side . . . Ted Gioia does much to convince us that music, far from being incidental to deeper political purposes or a convenient index of popular taste, is a profound ‘force of transformation and enchantment,’ intrinsic to human society.”

    New Criterion
  • “This book feels like the summation of a lifetime’s avid musical exploration and reading. It has an epic sweep and passionate engagement with the topic that carries one along irresistibly.”—Telegraph
  • “Gioia asserts that music history generally shares the whitewashed stories of the assimilators. . . . Exhaustively researched.”

    Christian Science Monitor
  • “In the space of a sentence, Gioia has let even the most cautious prospective reader know he has a lovely light touch, a mischievous sense of humour, and a determinedly skewed take on how music has been chronicled over the past 2,000-odd years. The highlights are too many to list. . . . He knows how to tell a story in a way that will keep people reading.”—Times Literary Supplement
  • “Mr. Gioia’s alternative history of music is extraordinary, groundbreaking, and bone-chillingly real.”

    Washington Times
  • “Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History is one of the most important and welcome books I’ve encountered in the last decade. If ever there were a book the world sorely needed, it’s Gioia’s.”—Buffalo News
  • “Scintillating. . . . Gioia is writing about evolution and magic—this is a music history that synthesizes both Darwin and Frazer, and, at least in terms of writing for a general audience, is the first to do so. We need this story.”—Brooklyn Rail
  • Music is Gioia’s magnum opus, an inventive and original work that spans 4,000 years. . . . Throughout this vital book, Gioia shows that music is still a disruptive force.”

  • “There is so much rich history in this book; so many interesting and startling facts and stories.”

    Syncopated Times
  • “Invigorating.”

    Pop Matters
  • “Marvelous.”

    Marc Myers, Jazz Wax
  • “Essential.”

    Jacksonville Journal-Courier
  • “In describing the kinds of music that existed throughout history, [Gioia] treats topics that have long been suppressed or ignored by historians who crave respectability, topics such as magic, sexuality, and violence. . . . As a writer and thinker he is compelling and thought provoking.”

  • “Gioia takes a look at the underside of music history, teasing out the episodes of sex, violence, and rebellion out of which music developed.”

    No Depression
  • “In this excellent history, music critic Gioia (How to Listen to Jazz) dazzles with tales of how music grew out of violence, sex, and rebellion. . . . Gioia’s richly told narrative provides fresh insights into the history of music."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
  • "Gioia draws on social science research into the past and present to forge a sweeping and enthralling account of music as an agency of human change."—Booklist, starred review
  • “Gioia’s argument is persuasive and offers a wealth of possibilities for further exploration.”—Library Journal
  • “A revisionist history highlights music’s connections to violence, disruption, and power. In a sweeping survey that begins in ‘pre-human natural soundscapes,’ music historian Gioia (How To Listen to Jazz, 2016, etc.) examines changes and innovation in music, arguing vigorously that the music produced by ‘peasants and plebeians, slaves and bohemians, renegades and outcasts’ reflected and influenced social, cultural, and political life. . . . A bold, fresh, and informative chronicle of music’s evolution and cultural meaning.”—Kirkus
  • "Gioia's sprawling and deeply interesting history of music defies all stereotypes of music scholarship. This is rich work that provokes many fascinating questions. Scientists and humanists alike will find plenty to disagree with, but isn't that the point? 'A subversive history,' indeed."—Samuel Mehr, Director, The Music Lab, Harvard University
  • “In this meticulously researched yet thoroughly page-turning book, Gioia argues for the universality of music from all cultures and eras. Subversives from Sappho to Mozart and Charlie Parker are given new perspective—as is the role of the church and other arts-shaping institutions. Music of emotion is looked at alongside the music of political power in a fascinating way by a master writer and critical thinker. This is a must-read for those of us for whom music has a central role in our daily lives.”—Fred Hersch, pianist and composer, and author of Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In and Out of Jazz
  • “As a fan of ‘big histories’ that sweep through space and time, I gobbled this one like candy as I found myself astounded by some idea, some fact, some source, some dots connected into a fast-reading big picture that takes in Roman pantomime riots, Occitan troubadours, churchbells, blues, Afrofuturism, surveillance capitalism, and much more. A must for music heads.”—Ned Sublette, author of Cuba and Its Music and The World That Made New Orleans
  • "One of the most perceptive writers on music has cut a wide swath down the path of history, illuminating details often left in the shadows and broadening our understanding of all things sonic. Gioia vividly points out that the wheels of cultural advancement are often turned by the countless unsung heroes of inventiveness. A mind opening and totally engaging read!"—Terry Riley

On Sale
Apr 20, 2021
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

Ted Gioia

About the Author

Ted Gioia is a music historian and the author of eleven books, including How to Listen to Jazz. His three previous books on the social history of music—Work Songs, Healing Songs, and Love Songs—have each been honored with the ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award. Gioia's wide-ranging activities as a critic, scholar, performer, and educator have established him as a leading global guide to music past, present, and future.

Learn more about this author