• 10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More) 1
  • 10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More) 2
  • 10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More) 3
  • 10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More) 4
  • 10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More) 5

10 Best Western Music History Books in 2022 (Shea Serrano, Alex Ross, and More)

From Beethoven to Britney Spears, Tina Turner to Tom Petty, the history of Western music spans years and genres. Music is both universal and deeply intimate. It soundtracks our political movements and our personal lives. It shapes our cultures and traditions. It can be highly technical, but it also doesn't require any formal training to enjoy. Whether you're a seasoned musician or a casual listener, learning about the history of Western music can provide insight into our social, cultural, and political past.


We've compiled a list of our top 10 favorite books about Western music history. Our number one pick? The Rap Year Book by Shea Serrano, a hilarious and enthusiastic journey through the history of rap. Serrano chooses one song to represent each year of rap since 1979, then defends his choice in a way that's entertaining but not overbearing. Keep reading for our other top picks!

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  • Last updated: 09-03-2022
Table of Contents

How to Choose a Western Music History Book - Buying Guide

Because Western music history is such a broad subject, the best thing you can do when choosing a book is try to narrow down your topic of interest. Here are some things to consider.

Choose Between Different Music Genres

One way to explore music history is to pick a genre to focus on. Maybe you're a hip-hop head or a jazz fanatic. Or perhaps you don't know anything about classical music and want to learn more.

Classical Music Spans Centuries

Classical Music Spans Centuries

The history of classical music goes back to around 500 A.D. with early forms of music like Gregorian chants and instruments like the lute. Classical music is divided into different eras based on the general styles and techniques that were in use at the time. 


The different eras are Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Modernist, and Postmodern. If you’re looking for a book about classical music history, it’s worth considering whether you want an overview of the entire genre or a closer look at a specific era.

Jazz is Rooted in Blues and Ragtime

Jazz is Rooted in Blues and Ragtime

Jazz music originated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the African-American communities of New Orleans. As it grew in popularity, different forms emerged with distinct regional variations. 


Jazz often features rhythm, brass, and woodwind instruments, with one the most recognized defining features of jazz music being the use of improvisation. Jazz has many subgenres, including older styles like swing and hard bop, as well as newer styles like smooth jazz and acid jazz.

Country Music Comes from the American South

Country Music Comes from the American South

Country music has its roots in blues and the folk songs of the Appalachian mountains. By the early 1920s, it was becoming popular in the southern United States. Nowadays, it has found popularity among a wide variety of audiences.


It generally features simple musical forms, harmonies, and string instruments like banjos, guitars, and fiddles. As country music has continued to evolve, it has often found inspiration in other genres, like soul, rock, and pop.

R&B is Another Child of Blues

R&B is Another Child of Blues

R&B originated in African-American communities in the 1940s. Much like jazz and country, it took much of its influence from blues music. 


In its early incarnations, R&B bands typically consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, a main singer, and sometimes background vocalists. As R&B has evolved, its definition has grown to encompass a variety of styles with touches of soul, funk, disco, electronic, and pop. 

Rock Music is All About Electric Guitar

Rock Music is All About Electric Guitar

What we now know as rock music began as rock 'n' roll in the early 1950s, influenced by blues, R&B, and country. Rock centers around the electric guitar, usually in combination with electric bass, drums, and vocals. 


Rock is extremely popular and has evolved to encompass a huge variety of subgenres. It has also served as a vehicle for social and cultural movements, like the hippie counterculture of the sixties and punk in the seventies. 


You can find books that cover the entire history of rock music, but if you want to go into even further detail, look for a book about a specific subgenre, like classic rock, heavy metal, or grunge.

Rap and Hip Hop Began in the Bronx

Rap and Hip Hop Began in the Bronx

Hip-hop got its start at block parties in 1970s New York City. At these block parties, DJs would create beats using funk, soul, and disco records. As the genre evolved, it began to incorporate elements still in use today, like scratching, beatboxing, sampling, and rapping.


If you want to learn about the history of hip-hop, you’ll also learn about hip-hop culture as a larger movement and how it grew to encompass other areas like fashion and art. As hip-hop and rap have continued to evolve, they have been influenced by other music genres, like rock and R&B, and new methods of distribution like the internet.

Electronic Music is a New Way of Creating Sounds

Electronic Music is a New Way of Creating Sounds

While the very first electronic music devices were created at the end of the nineteenth century, electronic instruments weren’t widely used in popular music until the 1970s. You can see the early influence of electronic instruments in genres like disco, new wave, and hip hop. 


In the late eighties and early nineties, dance music became popular. As technology continues to evolve, electronic music moves farther and farther away from traditional analog music, and can now be made using nothing but a computer!

Pop Music is Made to Be Popular

Pop Music is Made to Be Popular

Pop music as we know it today originated in mid-1950s rock 'n' roll. Generally, pop music includes repeated choruses and hooks written in a basic format, along with upbeat danceable tempos. It will often borrow elements of other genres, like rock, dance, and country. 


Pop music is often associated with professional producers and is created to be commercially successful. Because of this, books about pop will often explore the "pop music formula" and might delve a bit into music theory.

Pick a Time Period to Learn About

Pick a Time Period to Learn About

In addition to books about specific genres, there are also books that focus on a specific time period, era, or movement in music history. For example, a book could follow the evolution of different forms of music throughout the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. 


Another example of this could be a book that delves into the music of World War II or the civil rights movement. Books like these can provide an in-depth look at the social, political, and cultural context for the music of that time period.

Assess Your Knowledge of Musical Terminology

Assess Your Knowledge of Musical Terminology

If you’re not familiar with music theory and terminology, reading certain music history books can almost feel like learning a new language! Consider your own knowledge of music and your comfort level with the words used to describe it. 


Some books tend to get really technical, diving deep into music theory with discussions about scales, modes, rhythm, melody, and chord structures. If you’re a musician, you’ll probably find these types of books to be interesting and educational. 


Other books may approach music history from more of a cultural point of view or may do a good job explaining technical concepts in layman’s terms. If you consider yourself more of a beginner, these books are a great place to start.

Decide on a Writing Tone

Music history books use a variety of methods to delve into the past. Consider what kind of approach you want the author to take so you can find a book that will keep you interested.

Stick to Historical Accuracy With Factual Information

Stick to Historical Accuracy With Factual Information

If you prefer a more academic experience, look for books that describe historical events from a third-person point of view. These books are often written by music scholars or historians and take a more formal tone. 


They tend to explain the known events of music history, including biographical information about musicians, descriptions of important performances or pieces, and exploration of the wider historical, social, political, and cultural context.

Music Criticism Includes the Author's Opinion

Music Criticism Includes the Author's Opinion

Many music history books are written by music critics and may include their own personal views and opinions in addition to factual information. Because these critics have spent many years studying music, their opinions are typically well-informed and may help to illuminate parts of music history that you haven't considered before.


If you're interested in a book that includes music criticism, it can be helpful to look for books written by experts in the field, whether it's a specific genre or time period. You can research the author's credentials and even read some of their shorter published pieces to see if you like their style.

Music Theory Requires Some Technical Knowledge

Music Theory Requires Some Technical Knowledge

Another type of writing you might find in music history books is music theory. Music theory delves into the technical aspects of music to explore what makes songs effective. This often includes a discussion of things like rhythm, meter, key, instrumentation, melody, and harmony. 


Music theory can get really in-depth and if you're not familiar with the terminology it can definitely be frustrating. If you do have technical knowledge, look for books by music critics and musicians, which will often include discussions of theory.


If you're looking for something less technical, books by historians or oral and visual histories are great options.

Personal Anecdotes and Interviews Relive the Past

Personal Anecdotes and Interviews Relive the Past

One of the best ways to bring music history to life is to hear stories from those who lived it. Books that include personal anecdotes or interviews can help provide unique insight into a specific era of music. They are also usually entertaining to read, since musicians tend to have some wild stories!

Images Add Another Dimension to Music History

Images Add Another Dimension to Music History

While music is, obviously, about sounds, music history encompasses so much more. Music creates culture and supports political movements. It's inextricably tied to the people and places who make, consume, and contribute to it. When reading about music history, having a visual component can help bring history to life.


Some music history books contain photographs of the musicians, both in concert and behind-the-scenes. Others might include album art or images of promotional materials. And for books that reach far back into the past, illustrations can help illuminate historical facts.

Don’t Forget the Music Itself

Don’t Forget the Music Itself

You’ve probably heard the quote: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” It’s a funny image with a true sentiment! 


Reading music history books can be an informative and exciting way to learn about the evolution of music in the Western world, but in order to get the full experience, you need to listen to the music as well. Whether you use CDs, a streaming platform, or YouTube, make sure you’re able to listen to the music that you’re reading about.

10 Best Western Music History Books

There are so many music history books out there, it's hard to pick just 10! In this list, we tried to represent a variety of genres, time periods, and author styles. Some books are heavy on personal anecdotes and interviews, some take more of a historical academic perspective, and some are written through a music criticism lens.

Image
1
Shea Serrano The Rap Year Book 1

Shea Serrano

2
Alex Ross The Rest is Noise 1

Alex Ross

3
Bob Stanley Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! 1

Bob Stanley

4
Adam White, Barney Ales Motown 1

Adam White, Barney Ales

5
Mark Weiss, Richard Bienstock The Decade That Rocked 1

Mark Weiss, Richard Bienstock

6
Rick Beyer The Greatest Music Stories Never Told 1

Rick Beyer

7
Ted Gioia The History of Jazz 1

Ted Gioia

8
Jan Swafford The Vintage Guide to Classical Music 1

Jan Swafford

9
Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain Please Kill Me 1

Legs McNeil, Gillian McCain

10
Jon Meacham, Tim McGraw Songs of America 1

Jon Meacham, Tim McGraw

Name

The Rap Year Book

The Rest is Noise

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Motown

The Decade That Rocked

The Greatest Music Stories Never Told

The History of Jazz

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music

Please Kill Me

Songs of America

Features

A Journey Through Rap's History One Song at a Time

A Bird's Eye View of the Sounds of the Twentieth Century

Explore Pop Music in All Its Glory

Motown, Told by Those Who Made it Happen

A Visual History of Rock

Golden Nuggets of Music History Knowledge

A Journey Into Jazz's Vibrant Past

A Comprehensive Guide to Classical Music

The Dark and Dirty Stories of Punk Music

An Exploration of American Music

Price$16.49$18.79$18.44$28.10$46.01$19.99$16.62$22.00$14.79$14.99
SubjectRap20th century musicPopMotownRock, photographyGeneral music historyJazzClassicalPunkAmerican music
ToneHistorical facts, anecdotes, music criticism, imagesHistorical facts, music criticism, music theoryHistorical facts, music criticismHistorical facts, anecdotes, imagesAnecdotes, interviews, imagesHistorical factsHistorical facts, music criticism, music theoryHistorical facts, music criticism, music theoryAnecdotes, interviewsHistorical facts, music criticism
Date published2015200720152019202020112011199220162019
Page count240720624400378224444624448320
Available formatsKindle, paperbackKindle, audiobook, hardcover, paperback, audio CDKindle, hardcover, paperbackHardcover, paperbackHardcoverKindle, hardcoverKindle, audiobook, paperback, MP3 CDPaperbackKindle, hardcover, paperbackKindle, audiobook, hardcover
eBook price$9.99$11.99$10.18N/AN/A$12.499.73N/A$9.99$15.99
Link
1

Shea SerranoThe Rap Year Book

$16.49

SubjectRap
ToneHistorical facts, anecdotes, music criticism, images
Date published2015
Page count240
Available formatsKindle, paperback
eBook price$9.99
2

Alex RossThe Rest is Noise

$18.79

Subject20th century music
ToneHistorical facts, music criticism, music theory
Date published2007
Page count720
Available formatsKindle, audiobook, hardcover, paperback, audio CD
eBook price$11.99
3

Bob StanleyYeah! Yeah! Yeah!

$18.44

SubjectPop
ToneHistorical facts, music criticism
Date published2015
Page count624
Available formatsKindle, hardcover, paperback
eBook price$10.18
4

Adam White, Barney AlesMotown

$28.10

SubjectMotown
ToneHistorical facts, anecdotes, images
Date published2019
Page count400
Available formatsHardcover, paperback
eBook priceN/A
5

Mark Weiss, Richard BienstockThe Decade That Rocked

$46.01

SubjectRock, photography
ToneAnecdotes, interviews, images
Date published2020
Page count378
Available formatsHardcover
eBook priceN/A
6

Rick BeyerThe Greatest Music Stories Never Told

$19.99

SubjectGeneral music history
ToneHistorical facts
Date published2011
Page count224
Available formatsKindle, hardcover
eBook price$12.49
7

Ted GioiaThe History of Jazz

$16.62

SubjectJazz
ToneHistorical facts, music criticism, music theory
Date published2011
Page count444
Available formatsKindle, audiobook, paperback, MP3 CD
eBook price9.73
8

Jan SwaffordThe Vintage Guide to Classical Music

$22.00

SubjectClassical
ToneHistorical facts, music criticism, music theory
Date published1992
Page count624
Available formatsPaperback
eBook priceN/A
9

Legs McNeil, Gillian McCainPlease Kill Me

$14.79

SubjectPunk
ToneAnecdotes, interviews
Date published2016
Page count448
Available formatsKindle, hardcover, paperback
eBook price$9.99
10

Jon Meacham, Tim McGrawSongs of America

$14.99

SubjectAmerican music
ToneHistorical facts, music criticism
Date published2019
Page count320
Available formatsKindle, audiobook, hardcover
eBook price$15.99

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