Alexandra Coghlan

The history of music – at breakneck speed

Starting with the bone flutes of 40,000 BC, Andrew Gant gallops through polyphony, Beethoven and Schoenberg, right up to the YouTube sensation Jacob Collier

A page from Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata. [Alamy]

From Ladybird’s The Story of Music (a dinky 50 pages, generously illustrated) to Richard Taruskin’s five-volume epic The Oxford History of Western Music, the history of classical music has been sliced and stretched in print to fit every possible length, format and agenda.

Andrew Gant’s Five Straight Lines joins the cluster of works jostling and elbowing at the midpoint of these extremes. The Oxford-based academic (whose previous books on carols and hymns have introduced us to a genial, approachable narrator, with a welcome glint in his eye), shouts no provocative argument or USP from his cover, makes no novel claims for his survey. This is, quite simply, a narrative of music from the beginning to the now.

Or it would be, if it weren’t for all those pesky questions. Where do you start? Who makes the cut and who is left out? What genres are we talking about when we talk about music? And, when it comes down to it, what is music, anyhow?

The title speaks, disarmingly, of music in terms of just five straight lines: the clear architecture of the stave within which western music is constructed. But the lines of the artform itself, as Gant gradually reveals, are more Kandinsky than Mondrian, unfolding in inconveniently wriggling coils, inter-sections and — let’s face it — tangles.

Gant’s solution is a sequence of interlocking, overlapping chronologies, trending broadly forwards while often darting in reverse. You can see the logic: the Renaissance isn’t neatly cleared away before a new set of composers bring out the Baroque. But the effect can be disorienting, particularly at the book’s consistently breathless pace. You think you’re securely crouched in the trenches of the first world war, only to find yourself plunged back into the perfumed salons of the Belle Époque.

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