Music history was shaped by rebels

Ted Gioia's latest book is a fresh, cogent journey through the long history of personal expression through musical rebellion.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
“Music: A Subversive History” by Ted Gioia, Basic Books, 514 pp.

“Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” This quote from Plutarch is how music historian Ted Gioia opens “Music: A Subversive History.” Heeding the wisdom of the ancient Greek writer, he explores music over millennia.

While the harmony of music has always been central to human experience, the history that has been passed down over centuries reflects a version embraced by music conservatories, religious orders, and the social elite. These institutions, Gioia argues, have been the assimilators. A deep dive into surviving documents reveals that, after first rejecting new ideas, the institutions later incorporated them into the accepted canon. 

Readers might be surprised by how the rebellious musicians from centuries ago helped shape our contemporary music scene. Gioia shows how their energy empowered the role of the singer, created the concept of an audience, and formed the nascent music business that we recognize today. 

Gioia points out that music had long been under the control of the church and the crown. As “the lowly performer” began to acquire recognition apart from institutions, the power of the elite began to shift into the hands of common folk.

And while it might seem obvious that where there is music there would be an audience, Gioia asserts that the construct of dividing the musician from the listener is far more recent than we might expect. Up to the late medieval period, music had largely been a group activity. 

Rebel musicians, however, began to deviate from common practice and, exploiting opportunity, sought to please listeners. In a hierarchical society, this shift proved to be a game changer. Not only did it create the performer and the audience, but it also turned the masses into the arbiters of taste. 

“This was the subversive moment when pop culture got its pop,” he writes.

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