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5 Essential Books About Music for Non-Musicians

It can be intimidating to dip your toes into the world of music. To really know music feels like a behind-the-scenes deal. Only those with privileged access can really pick apart a pop song, or a classical piece. Since it’s a subject so many people study with such passion, casual listeners can let their passion subside. They might let the professionals get to know music. Meanwhile, their own interest in the topic wilts.


Luckily, there’s a whole world of books available for non-musicians to more deeply connect with music. The books below allow the readers to construct their own relationship and understanding of how music’s developed, how it impacts people, and how it affects them. Here are five important books for non-musicians to pick up.


1. The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross


Rest is Noise Cover

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From Alex Ross, music critic at the New YorkerThe Rest Is Noise essentially provides a history lesson of the 20th century through the development of music. Ross follows rebellious composers striving to make a new sound, regardless of their political situation or even societal interest.


Part of this book’s mission is to make the history of classical music interwoven with the history of the world. Of the many astonishing points Ross makes, the one that resounds most may be that pop culture has its roots, in fact, in classical music. The Rest Is Noise was awarded a National Book Critics Circle Award.


2. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers


Good Booty cover

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NPR music critic Ann Powers examines how pop music interacts with sexuality, gender, and race in Good Booty. By shifting the focus off of the music itself, Powers is able to construct pretty convincing social critcism. Musicians from Britney Spears to classic rockers, and from gospel singers to hardcore punks are put under Powers’s microscope. For Powers, pop music is a vessel for eroticism. Good Booty explains how we got here.


3. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties by Ian MacDonald


Revolution in the Head

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Ian MacDonald’s 1995 classic digs deep into the Beatles’ catalogue, and examines the production behind every single record. MacDonald goes beyond looking at who played what on each song, or how the idea of a song came to be…his portrait of the Fab Four often provides a deep understanding of how 60s culture affected the Beatles, and was affected by the Beatles.


4. This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin


This Is Your Brain on Music Cover

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Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin breaks down how we hear music, and why we like it so much. Like so much of human behavior, the central conflict of the music question seems to come down to nature versus nurture. Levitin explores a range of topics, such as how two people can hear the same pitch in different ways to how it might feel to suffer from a rare disorder that prevents people from understanding music (gasp!). Using his expertise in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, you won’t hear music the same way again after reading Levitin’s book.


5. Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson by Dr. Licks


Standing in the Shadows of Motown Cover

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Dr. Licks’s (A.K.A. Allan Slutsky’s) book is about one of the most important musicians nobody’s heard of: James Jamerson. As a member of Motown’s longtime session band, the Funk Brothers, Jamerson played on tracks from artists like the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.


Licks’s book compiles interviews with bassists influenced by Jamerson, and there are many. Some of the contributing bassists include John Entwistle (bassist of the Who) and Paul McCartney. Jamerson’s profound impact on the infectious rhythms of Motown have continued to influence pop music today. One might even be tempted to say Jamerson’s syncopating, unpredictable basslines fundamentally changed how rhythm functions in pop music. If you need convincing, check out this visualization of his bassline on Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”



Feature image courtesy of the Beatles.