Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed

PDF Musical Revolutions: How the Sounds of the Western World Changed June 7, 2022

Book author
  1. Stuart Isacoff

The invention of music notation by a skittish Italian monk in the eleventh century. The introduction of multilayered hymns in the Middle Ages. The birth of opera in a Venice rebelling against the church’s pious restraints. Baroque, Romantic, and atonal music; bebop and cool jazz; Bach and Liszt; Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In telling the exciting story of Western music’s evolution, Stuart Isacoff explains how music became entangled in politics, culture, and economics, giving rise to new eruptions at every turn, from the early church’s attempts to bind its followers by teaching them to sing in unison to the global spread of American jazz through the Black platoons of the First World War.

The author investigates questions like: When does noise become music? How do musical tones reflect the natural laws of the universe? Why did discord become the primary sound of modernity? Musical Revolutions is a book replete with the stories of our most renowned musical artists, including notable achievements of people of color and women, whose paths to success were the most difficult.


HIS IS A BOOK ABOUT MOMENTS in music history when things dramatically changed, a succession of bold leaps in the progress of Western culture. Some of these had a gloriously expansive effect, like the invention of music notation in the eleventh century; the birth of opera in the sixteenth; the time in the early twentieth when American jazz spread its wings and moved to Paris. Others were seriously unsettling, like the tumultuous decision by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg and his students to erase the distinction between “consonance” and “dissonance,” thereby overthrowing the very pillars of Western harmony; or the determination by John Cage and his followers to craft their music from the indeterminacy of a coin toss. Each one ushered in a new direction—often unexpected, like a planet following an invisible orrery, discernible only after the fact. At times these spurred convulsive reactions against the current trend (as in the swing, during J. S. Bach’s lifetime, from clotted complexity to elegant simplicity—a change Bach himself transcended, as his music embodied both).

Still, these changes usually didn’t arise in a flash, like an unforeseen volcanic eruption, but instead unfolded as an arc: preceded by earlier hints and models, and encompassing long-term aftereffects. The pattern reflects the definition of “revolution” as suggested by Nicolaus Copernicus in his groundbreaking On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, in 1543. “Revolution,” in his view, implies cyclic return, as in the elliptical orbits of the planets as they revolve around the sun; or in periodic repetition, per Galileo’s explanation of the ocean’s tides, based on Copernican theory. The term “revolution,” though it conjures images of storming the barricades, is frequently less a cannon shot than a great pendulum swing. And, as J. Bernard Cohen pointed out in Revolution in Science (1985), it implies depth, a cumulative impact, a web of contexts.
Even with the disruptive shock of the new, a discernible symmetry can be found within revolutionary change. As Mark Twain pointed out, history may not exactly repeat, but it rhymes: the universe unfolds as a great narrative poem, outlining an endless series of connections. In describing the arc of a particular musical phenomenon, however, the question arises of how far back one should search for its origins. The pursuit could be endless, because there never was a time without music.

Archaeologists have found a flute, at least thirty-five thousand years old, in a cave in southwestern Germany, made from a hollow bone of a griffon vulture, placed in a curated setting, surrounded by cave paintings and carved figures. A conch-shell horn from the Paleolithic period, eighteen thousand years ago, has turned up in southern France; it had been deliberately chipped and punctured to create a musical instrument. Clearly, music and art have always been essential aspects of living.
The list of events in this book is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. No attempt has been made for completeness, since the subject is inexhaustible, and others might well come up with alternate versions—including perspectives more inclusive of world music. There is a great big universe beyond the Western canon, and my narrow focus is simply a result of who I am, and what I have focused on and experienced for most of my life. I don’t have the expertise to venture very much beyond the topics presented here.
In fact, I felt compelled to skip even some important facets of Western music, like rock—the stylistic juggernaut that emerged in the 1950s, animated by teenage angst and overheated libidos. It arose from the simmering turmoil at the center of a growing generation gap, with the aim of disrupting the status quo. Like everything else covered here, rock constantly evolved. In the beginning, its transgressions were relatively tame: Elvis Presley stunned a public unaccustomed to artists whose style transcended the Black/white racial divide, and easily sent teen girls into a frenzy with the mere twitch of his hips.

As the years wore on, the festering nihilism at the music’s center erupted into outright brutality: pianist Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire”) literally set his instrument ablaze; the Who’s Pete Townshend smashed guitars on stage, as the music metaphorically demolished social guardrails. Rock musicians increasingly assumed the role of outcasts and outlaws, though the Beatles, among other groups leading the “British Invasion,” brought charm to the mix. The movement’s trajectory changed again through increasing levels of sophistication, while diverse currents, from folk-rock and grunge to electronics and hip-hop, influenced the genre in unpredictable ways. If rock is to be written about, it deserves a more knowledgeable observer than myself.

So the scope here is limited. Yet the benchmarks I cite, aspects of a continuing tradition, stand out in my mind as moments of remarkable creativity and daring, though it is unusual to find them compiled into a single volume. They are worth remarking upon, and celebratin.


Jonathan Segal, my editor at Knopf, has been an enthusiastic supporter of my work for over twenty years. I value his expertise and skill, and his friendship, more than I can say. Thanks are also due to his generous assistant, Sarah Perrin. No words would be adequate to express my gratitude to my wife, Adrienne, and to my daughters, Nora and Rachel. Their encouragement and care were unflagging, especially as I faced health challenges while completing this book, In the process I drew on the kindness of many friends, musicians and music-industry professionals, including pianist Steven Lubin; the late Noah Creshevsky (who convinced me of the necessity of including chapter two) and his partner, David Sachs; Steve Sidorsky; Nicholas Platt; Michael Harrison; Steve Reich; Sara Davis Buechner; Bill Charlap; Long Yu; Roberto Prosseda; Carol Ann Cheung of Boosey & Hawkes; Wei Zhou of Weiber Consulting; Patricia Price and Julianne Zahl of 8VA Music Consultancy; graphic designer Mason Phillips; Ruth Rando of the Closter Public Library; and Laura Kuhn of the John Cage Trust.​
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