Nicholas Cook’s world of music


The Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series contains much more interesting material than its series title might suggest.

Rather than offer practical ”for dummies” style guidebooks, the editorial policy seems to lean towards polemics that survey a field and offer an overview with an overt allegiance to a particular point of view.

I read Very Short Introduction to Music this week, in which Nicholas Cook situates music within the history of cultural processes.

At the beginning he states clearly, about his extended essay, that

What it isn’t is an ABC of music, providing a potted summary of the so-called rudiments (staves, clefs, chords, and the rest) followed by a quick romp through the repertory… If you can sensibly talk about music having an alphabet at all, then every music has its own alphabet.

He does, however, drop in a lot of pertinent historical facts along the way, as he lays out his hypothesis.

His thesis resides in the end upon distinguishing between two models of art: the ”picture theory of art” and another view (derived from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that suggests that ”the role of art is to make available new ways of ’constituting our sense of reality’ as another philosopher, Joanna Hodge, has put it”.

You may not find it much of a surprise to discover that Nicholas Cook comes down in favour of an interestingly modified version of the latter.

Posted on January 11, 2020