Bloomsbury has been publishing its Cultural History series for a few years now. One recent example is the Cultural History of Music, under review here. If you are looking for a musical history of singers you a are fan of, this is not for you. In 2023 Rolling Stone did a poll to identify the greatest singers of all time. In the top position is Aretha Franklin, but she is not even mentioned in the Popular Culture chapter of the book dealing with the Modern Age. I think the deliberate avoidance of such icons (don’t bother looking for Elvis Presley or Ella Fitzgerald) in books about music is an unfortunate editorial choice. As an academic study of Western music it is, however, unsurpassed.

I approached the mammoth task of reviewing this 6-volume set in the following way. First, I read the entire book on music in ancient times, and then I read the Philosophy chapter is each of the other five books. I chose that chapter over the others since I have a Doctorate in Philosophy, so it is the one I’m best qualified to comment on. I also read other chapters in the set, which helped round out my impressions. So first, my review of the initial volume.

Comments on Volume 1:

A University of Texas (Austin) professor is co-editor of this volume. Sean Gurd also wrote a chapter, co-wrote the Introduction, and co-wrote a second chapter. His co-editor is Pauline A. Leven (Yale University). In the Introduction, they make a bold statement that sets the tone for the remainder of the volume: “Music is unusual among art forms in its near-total plasticity, and its wide-open malleability can make it a theatre for utopian thought.” (for more on the utopian aspect, see my comments on Volume 5). Wester music, they write, “is usually understood to be heir to the Greek and Roman civilizations,” this this is the focus of the books.

Where does our information about ancient music come from? I found it surprising that the ancient “library collections either did not include or did not actively preserve notation even in the song-texts of great musical forms like tragedy or lyric…The dynamics of musical transmission through this period remain poorly understood.” Much of what we know was inscribed on stone, but hints can be derived from some literary texts. We know that the ancient Greeks related the body of the musician to the value of music. “Aristophanes, for example, depicts his comic rival Cratinus as an out-of-tune lyre falling to pieces, assimilating the musician’s body with that of his instrument.” Likewise, musicians “utilized the full range of sonic possibilities presented by their instruments; the archaic auloi appear to have been exploited to produce squeaks and hisses and timbral varieties.” For those who make it to volume 6, this exploration of the full sonic possibilities of instruments is exactly what Sun Ra was doing in the 1970s (see my Volume 6 comments).  So 2,500 years of making music comes full circle in our electronic music age.

In a look at music in ancient Rome, Lauren Curtis (Bard College, New York) tells us of a processional hymn to Juno (wife of Zeus), which was composed by Rome’s earliest known poet, Livius Andronicus (280-200 BCE). The procession consisted of 27 young girls, who went through the city and upon entering the Forum performed a rope dance. Livy tells us they passed “a rope through their hands, advanced, regulating the sound of their voice to the beating of their feet.” But Curtis (in the Society chapter) expressed great frustration about this. “Livy makes no mention of the instrumental music that doubtless accompanied them, and deems the contents of their hymn too primitive to record for posterity.” If only he knew how valuable such information would be! Even though their “song and dance harnessed the collective memory of shared musical traditions at Rome,” we are at a loss to say what that memory was. Throughout this volume on ancient music, the authors lament the lack of descriptive data.

In the Philosophies chapter, Tom Phillips (Univ. of Manchester) offers several fascinating insights. One involves Cleanthes of Assos (330-230 BCE), who made a “remarkable claim” about music’s affectivity. “Cleanthes held that the non-conceptual elements of music and poetry approximated the nature of the gods more closely than words alone.” Here is a quote from what Cleanthes wrote, according to a study by Philodemus:

                Cleanthes says that poetic and musical examples are superior: philosophical speech

                can report divine and human matters adequately, but simple prose does not have

                locutions proper to divine greatness; instead, meters, melodies, and rhythms

                approach as close as possible to the truth of the contemplation of divinity.

As an example of affectivity, Phillips shows us the image of a terracotta wine cooler from 520 BCE. It depicts dolphins ridden by hoplite soldiers carrying their shield and spear. This is “very likely to form a kind of metaphorical picture of choral dancing. Dolphins were strongly associated with chirality in the poetry of the fifth century BCE.” The “hoplites appear to be moving in a circle, as some choruses did,” while the “bobbing movement and gracefully arcing bodies” of the dolphins “act as a metaphor for the energies and movement of choral dance.”

Phillips suggests that drinkers at a symposium, where this wine cooler was placed, would have been entertained by music performed on an aulos. As Sarah Olsen (Williams College) makes clear in her chapter on Politics, if these jolly fellows were in Plato’s ideal city, they would not be hearing the aulos! “In Plato’s Republic, Socrates suggests that the aulos and its players have no place in his ideal city, specifically decrying the instrument’s potential for polyharmony.” Olsen identifies this as an important passage, as it lets us see that “among a certain conservative subset of fifth-century Athenian thinkers, there was a politically charged opposition between the traditional and orderly music of the kithara and the excessively mimetic, professionalized, and unruly aulos.”

In the Exchange chapter by Gurd, I learned “the Greek singers of the traditional epics developed a music-specific form of language which assembled components of multiple dialects and corresponded to no locally spoken form.” In that chapter, he also explores the ways music was disseminated. Thanks to an inscription at Delphi in the second century BCE, we know the Greeks developed a musical notation. Thus, it is likely that recorded scores circulated among musicians and students. “Notational systems themselves could have functioned as vectors for musical knowledge.”

Carolyn Laferriere (Princeton Univ. Art Museum) notes in her chapter on Education that the Roman elite “were uninterested in performing,” leaving music education to the underclasses. “The diminished importance of musical performance in Rome had a specific effect on musical instruction more broadly: it was now linked with arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy in the quadrivium, where the emphasis was on theoretical knowledge.”

In the chapter on Popular Culture, Hanna Golab (Univ. of New York) looks at such things as travelling songs, festivals, and the theatre. In what is modern-day Turkey, she closely examines the court of King Antiochus I Theos (86-31 BCE). He established a new cult to unite his disparate kingdom, one that “relied strongly on the popular entertainment that was to be offered at the festival.” In his space, “the social status of the musicians was sacred and inviolable. They were untouchable even in the presence of kings and other rulers. Their only responsibility was to devote their life to the art of music and so pass it on to their offspring.” While this Shangri-La of musical freedom did not continue after his death, its very existence speaks volumes about the power of music.

In her chapter on Performance, Pauline LeVen (Yale Univ.) makes it clear that “there is no epic outside of performance; rather performance creates, even is the epic.” She bases this on the Homeric epics of the eighth century BCE, which are “the perfect example of a type of music that was composed not just for but most fundamentally in performance.” Over the course of the chapter, she elucidates what this means in a practical sense: “Musical performance was at the heart of communal life and of the conceptualization of being human, from what it means to have a soul to what it means to live in a city.” Heady stuff indeed!

The final chapter, Technologies, is co-written by Gurd and Leven. The ancient Greeks made “scientific instruments capable of musical expression that were also used to observe harmonic principles. Early experiments included a forty-string board zither, the epigonion, invented by the sixth-century BCE Epigonus of Sicyon.” The Greeks also built showy examples of automata that could make sounds such as trumpets by the use of flowing water.      

Another invention was the much simpler monochord. “It occupies a central place in the polemics between two different schools of ancient music theorists, the Aristoxenians (who denied that we perceive, and think about, musical intervals as ratios) and the mathematical harmonicists who insisted that intervals are ratios.” Delving further into a story told of Aristoxenus around the year 335BCE, he treated a man terrified of the sound of the war trumpet “by playing salpinx music on the aulos over the course of many days.” This is the first example of musical psychotherapy, which Gurd & Leven tell us “was a recurring matter of interest” in ancient Greece. It also brings us back to the Introduction of the book, where Gurd & Leven inform us that Aristoxenus “defined musical sounds as involving intervallic leaps between fixed and stable pitches.” No experimental music for him! The squeaks and hisses of the aulos of the aulos were banished, until they were resurrected, so to speak, by an American portraying himself as the Egyptian god Sun Ra. While writing this lengthy review, I listened to the music of Sun Ra to put me in the right frame of mind.

Comments on Volume 2:

The Philosophies chapter in this volume is co-written by Andrew Hicks (Cornell Univ.) and Jonathan Morton (Tulane Univ.). The Middle Ages were very much beholden to ancient Greek thought. “Many of the key themes within western medieval philosophies of music have their origins in the cosmogonic myth of Plato’s Timaeus.” According to Plato, music was a gift of the gods, “freely offered to humanity as a helpmate in the restoration of the discordant soul.” The authors see the Timaeus as casting its cosmology not just in philosophical terms, but musico-philosophical terms. This inspired numerous 12th-century writers, including William of Conches. William declares that “the world loves harmony, and if the elements were to become discordant, the world would also dissolve.” The moral and political domain was also explored by Boethius. At the beginning of his musical treatise, he quotes “a decree censuring and banishing Timotheus the Milesian for introducing immoderate and excessive ‘chromatic’ melodies, which had threatened the very moderation of virtue among the youth of Sparta.”

Finally, I will mention an amazing work by Martianus Capella, written around the year 415CE, that really captures the essence of the philosophy of Western music. The maiden Harmonia is featured in his famous work On the Marriage of Philology and Mercury. She bears a shield that depicts the origin of the universe. “Its (Timaean, cosmic) harmonies are audible…the shield’s music transcends the instrumental potential of all worldly soundings, which are dissonant in comparison to its sweetness.” When Harmonia arrives at the celestial court’s nuptial celebrations, a “hushed silence falls in response to the shield’s transcendent harmonies.” In this silence, what becomes audible is “the optimistic wonder and desire captured by cosmology’s musical representations.”

There are issues with the Index. Bernard of Chartres is indexed on 58, but not on 66 where he is quoted. And Martianus Capella appears on 59, but that instance is not indexed either.

Comments on Volume 3:

Moving to the Renaissance, the Philosophies chapter is by Melinda Latour (Tufts Univ.). She looks at a bestseller from 1494, The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant. In a woodcut by Durer that illustrates the book, one sees a musical banner above a ship overloaded with men wearing the fools cap. The banner is clearly labelled as the music of Gaudeamus omnes (Let us rejoice), which was often invoked as a cry of common joy, a parody, or for blasphemous purposes. “Thus, the sacred call to rejoice in God’s glory doubled as a carnivalesque call to worship human folly. The musical banner cleverly accommodates this paradox, serving as the theme song for the land of fools while simultaneously proposing a musical passage to redemption.” In the spirit of blasphemy, it reminds me of another theme song: for the TV show Gilligan’s Island, which certainly features a shipload of fools! Latour uses the example of the woodcut to show that music has a paradoxical flexibility to cross the folly/wisdom divide.

Later in her chapter, Latour casts an academic glance at echo, “in all of its messy and philosophical glory.” She highlights works by Ludovico Agostini from the 1580s that feature numerous echo passages. It gives her a platform to showcase Skepticism. “The printed music invites improvisation and a display of creative vocal virtuosity by the echo voices, in effect beautifully distorting the leading (original) voice in a way that would have confirmed every Skeptic’s fear that the sense of hearing could mislead the listener.”

Comments on Volume 4:

The Enlightenment period ushered in a “new attitude about sound,” according to chapter author Roger Mathew Grant (Wesleyan Univ.). He cites the words of German musician Johann Mattheson (1681-1764):

                In most books which deal with music, a great deal is made of number and measures…

                on sound, however, and the very important physiological part of this science,

                scarcely a word is said.  

This new attitude inspired Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) to write paper in which he “arrives at the subject of music in order to provide an example of a pleasurable aesthetic reaction to something that is beyond our immediate powers of comprehension.” This tension between old and new led to the famous quarrel between ancient and moderns, which saw opera as an easy target. Pier Martello (1665-1727) wrote a satire on opera, where “composers load on tone of notes in elaborate melodies, stretching out long musical lines to fit vowels of meaningless words…For Martello and many other period thinkers, the verdict was clear: opera was entirely performance and dazzling distraction. Any moral force that its classicized themes might have had was lost in the garish beguilement of musical sound.”

This era also witnessed the creation of the basic methodology that still guides inquiry into musicology. Johann Forkel (1749-1818) inaugurated the three foundational and abiding branches of such inquiry: “theory (to examine and explain music’s formal organization), anthropology (in order to differentiate Western music from other musical cultures), and history (to explain the progression to its modern state).”

This era also witnessed the creation of the basic methodology that still guides inquiry into musicology. Johann Forkel (1749-1818) inaugurated the three foundational and abiding branches of such inquiry: theory (to examine and explain music’s formal organization), anthropology (in order to differentiate Western music from other musical cultures), and history (to explain the progression to its modern state).”This era also witnessed the creation of the basic methodology that still guides inquiry into musicology. Johann Forkel (1749-1818) inaugurated the three foundational and abiding branches of such inquiry: theory (to examine and explain music’s formal organization), anthropology (in order to differentiate Western music from other musical cultures), and history (to explain the progression to its modern state).”This era also witnessed the creation of the basic methodology that still guides inquiry into musicology. Johann Forkel (1749-1818) inaugurated the three foundational and abiding branches of such inquiry: theory (to examine and explain music’s formal organization), anthropology (in order to differentiate Western music from other musical cultures), and history (to explain the progression to its modern state).

Comments on Volume 5:

“Many nineteenth-century philosophers,” writes Michael Gallope (Univ. of Minnesota), “begin to think of music of having unique and vivid philosophical powers, from the metaphysical, to the psychological, and the utopian.” The best example of the utopian aspect can be found in the chapter on Performance by Roger Moseley (Cornell Univ.), who explores an extraordinary science fiction composition by Hector Berlioz. It is about “the operatic culture of a futuristic German city called Euphonia,” and the year is 2344. In this city, searches are made to find the individual best equipped to perform a particular character. Moseley writes that “the Euphonian quest for the ideal performance might be explained in terms of opera belatedly following the philosophical lead of instrumental music in forming a canon of masterworks that were ‘better than they can be performed’ (to paraphrase pianist Artur Schnabel).”

Returning to the Philosophies chapter by Gallope, I found his discussion of Schelling and Hegel to be particularly fascinating. They had “complimentary views of the basic material of Klang (sound or sonority),” which they “considered to be foundational to the possibility of music…For Schelling, as sounds begin to succeed one another, by ‘an impulse of nature,’ sonorous succession becomes rhythm.” He believed rhythm “is the music within music,” allowing it to become a potent and symbolic form that is (in the words of Schelling) “abstracted from the real.” This leads Schelling to an extraordinary statement: music does not unfold in time, but rather “possesses time within itself.”

The philosophical work of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is also delved into by Gallope. “If Schopenhauer thought of poetry and painting as more or less representational, music’s way of capturing the thing-in-itself immediately was comparatively complex.” Schopenhauer wrote that “music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of Ideas, but a copy of the will itself, the objectivity of which are the Ideas.” By will, he meant “the whole Will of the world.”

While this series is about Western Music, author Ana Ochoa Gautier (Tulane Univ.) in another chapter discusses the “voices of native people” that were disappearing in the 19th century. She explores the use of the phonograph in preserving these sounds. “How to make sense of sounds that sounded radically different” is her goal, and it results in some fascinating byways, such as a trip in the 1850s through modern-day Colombia in South America. The traveller, Isaac Holton, wrote that the sounds made by his boat rowers sounded more like animals than like humans, and realised they needed to be recorded. It was the beginning of ethnomusicology, and such recordings can now be found in sound archives.

Comments on Volume 6:

What of those who can’t hear music? While it might be considered the inverse of the topic covered in these six volumes, it is not explored.

It reminds me of a sentence in the 1669 book An Elegant and Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature by Nathaniel Culverwel (not included in these 6 books):

                In Music, what though there never be such variety of graces, such inarticulate elegancies,

                such soft and silken touches, such quick stings and pleasant relishes, such musical

                amplifications, and flourishes, such nimble transitions and delicious closes; you’ll

                scarce convince a deaf man of all this, till you can give him his hearing.

Science today knows that the deaf can recognize music through touch by feeling the vibrations. I was led to ponder this in my reading of the Philosophies chapter by Anna Gawboy (Ohio State Univ.), who concludes that every composer she discusses “shared a belief in the transformative power of vibration.”  Here is a quote by her (page 65) that highlights this:

                Arnold Schoenberg famously rejected consonance and dissonance as absolute categories,

                pointing out that the overtone series was continuous. For Theosophically inclined

                composers, the idea that consonance and dissonance existed on a vibrational continuum

                paralleled Blavatsky’s notion of a vibrational continuum between spirit and matter. The

                intervallic relationships among the lower partials favored in traditional Western harmony

                were ‘natural,’ while the more dissonant upper reaches of the series, inaccessible to

                human perception, were ‘spiritual.’

But what human perception is she referring to? If it is merely hearing (by the ears) that is true, but could a deaf person, who senses sound by vibration, perceive these upper dissonant notes?

There is another matter where Volume 6 falls short. In 2016, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony orchestra performed at a special event entitled The Geometry of Music: Harold Scott Coxeter. It was held in honour of Dr. Coxeter (1907-2003), a University of Toronto geometer (see reference below). This concert, which I attended, was described by the curator Krista Blake as “an exploration into a world of symmetry, pattern, technology and the intimate relationship between mathematics and music, focusing on the beauty and elegance of geometry and its most passionate apostle, the late Donald Coxeter.” This thought-provoking concert featured an original composition by music theorist Dmitri Tymoczko of Princeton University, accompanied by projected geometric visuals created by programmer Nathan Selikoff. And it instantiated what Coxeter wrote in 1968: “I believe the resemblance between music and mathematics begins at the creative stage; the act of composing music seems to have some affinity with the discovery of mathematical facts.” Neither Coxeter nor Tymoczko are in this book. The ‘fact’ that mathematics does not even appear as an index entry in volume 6 is a clear miss of this critically important aspect of music in the modern age.

I first became intrigued by Sun Ra in 1970, when he released the album My Brother the Wind. Having been weaned on Classical music up till then, encountering music from a cosmic tone organ, a space harp, and an ancient Egyptian infinity drum was quite the wake-up call. And being an astronomer, it certainly resonated (pun intended) with me. I am pleased that he is finally getting his due in Volume 6 of this series, as Gawboy devotes serious attention to him. Much of her chapter deals with Theosophy, and the aforementioned Helena Blavatsky. While clearly a charlatan, Blavatsky (herself a splendid pianist) influenced many musicians. Gawboy writes that “Sun Ra’s avant-garde album Atlantis indicates his familiarity with Blavatsky in the lost continent tradition.” Like others before him, Sun Ra used music to envision “a utopian alternative future.”

There appear to be few typos in these books. I noted page 195 in Vol. 1 (Pinadar instead of Pindar); and page 224 in Vol. 5 (recenlty instead of recently). With regard to references, I was surprised that one of the most notable studies of all time, Charles Burney’s History of Music, is not mentioned at all. And in a discussion of the musical work of Gerbert of Aurillac (Pope Sylvester II) in volume 2, the detailed study by Marek Otisk is not utilised.

Superlatives fail to describe the achievement made by these six volumes. Truly a landmark work in the history of music, this set deserves a place in the library of any musicologist.

Image: still from an animated gif of Sun Ra, by Dante Zaballa.


Burney, C. (1776-1789). History of Music, 4 volumes. London.

Coxeter, H.S.M. (1968). Music and Mathematics. The Mathematics Teacher 61(3), 312-320.

Otisk, M. (2022). Arithmetic in the Thought of Gerbert of Aurillac. Berlin, Peter Lang.

A Cultural History of Western Music comprises 1,712 pages in six volumes. It is by Bloomsbury, and lists for $610.

Each book contains the same chapter topics:

Society, Philosophies, Politics, Exchange, Education, Popular Culture, Performance, Technologies. Each chapter typically has about 6 illustrations, but none are in colour.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.