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The Making of Music
BBC Audiobooks 9781405677783

If you are used to James Naughtie reading the ten o’clock news, this audio book collection will come as a shock. But a pleasant one, since it is a flawless, easily assimilated exposition of the history of music.

What it does best is contextualise – see such critical moments as the emergence of harmony, the rise of the composer and so on, within the context of society and history. If you are familiar with Naughtie's Proms presenting, then you will already know what to expect.

Naughtie comes over as passionate about his subject – again, if you are used to hearing him as a news presenter, the affection in his voice is striking. The format (originally a long series of short radio programmes) is ideal for so chapter-based a history as that of Western music. Western, since although we are promised items on world music later in the history, the story starts firmly in 12th century Western Europe.

But perhaps best of all, this is an excellent justification of the audio book format – illustrations in sound are ideal, and give the presentation an entirely appropriate drama. Witness the last chorus of the Matthew Passion to round off the Bach programme. Entirely predictable, yet still utterly stirring. In contrast, colour plates in a coffee-table book risk seeming irrelevant; even video footage in documentaries can seem like gratuitous travelogue. Books and CDs are now often issued together – this is again laudable, but it must be rare that a listener-reader gives such a combination the same close attention that the author-compiler intends; although the audio book gives one no choice, it also presents those examples in an ideally palatable form.

This collection is a great pleasure if you already know something of the history of music. If you don’t, then you will find it one of the most painless means of gaining a very satisfactory overview.

Ying Chang