Skip to main content

Hearing is believing

For too long music guides have been literal rather than sonic. Hugh John finds one that sounds as good as it reads

Resources don't come better than this. The Dictionary of Music in Sound is a two-book, three-CD package that seeks to explain musical terms and examples through the medium of sound. Obvious, really, you would have thought - after all, anyone who has taught or been a student of music knows that the best way of absorbing musical concepts is by playing or listening. Unfortunately, most reference books and dictionaries have, until now, offered literal rather than sonic definitions. As author David Bowman points out in his preface: "Any attempt to describe in words alone how music functions is likely to fail unless the reader already has a mental image of the sound of what is being describedI because music itself has no words for the concrete realities upon which verbal languages depend."

This dictionary is the result of five years' work by Bowman, director of music at Ampleforth College, York, for nearly 20 years and chief examiner at the University of London Schools Examination Board (now Edexcel), and it shows. There is much to admire here: impressive scholarship, meticulous cross-referencing, comprehensive, well-chosen musical examples and clear, concise definitions.

With more recorded examples than Barbirolli could shake his baton at (274 in all, of which more than 40 per cent were specially commissioned for this edition) and definitions of terms ranging from the common to the arcane, such as "zukunfts-musik": music of the future, it's hard to imagine a more thoroughly researched lexicon.

Bowman defines his parameters early on. In the preface he points out that this is a dictionary of "western art music" and "the nature of the dictionary and its length preclude a survey of the extensive terminology of non-western music". Likewise, "popular music" terms are not included unless they have relevance to "western art music" (or what we more popularly, if inaccurately, call classical music). Musicians, students and teachers looking for terms commonly used in jazz, for instance, will find "swing rhythm", "blue note" or "ragtime", but the examples given will be Debussy (Golliwog's Cakewalk) not Duke Ellington. To have included other musical genres, he points out, would have doubled the size of the dictionary.

Book one comprises a dictionary of musical terms - more than 2,000 in alphabetical order - and a section entitled "The Elements of Music", which is further subdivided into rhythm, tonality, melody, counterpoint, harmony, timbre, structure and style. Book two contains the complete set of musical examples in printed score form which are intended to complement the three discs.

Each CD has more than 90 recordings, arranged chronologically from plainsong through to a four-minute excerpt from James MacMillan's Quickening, which received its world premiere in 1999. The sound clips, averaging about 30 seconds, are clearly recorded and extremely pertinent. JS Bach and Bela Bart"k are well represented, for example, because they were both teachers and many of their works were written for pedagogical reasons.

Christopher Hand, who teaches music and conducts the choir at the Alice Ottley Independent Girls School in Worcestershire, has been using the dictionary with his classes since it was released earlier in the year. He's definitely impressed. "It elucidates cross-references and is a mine of information to anyone," he says. Hand has used the dictionary primarily with GCSE, A and AS-level classes, but points out that many of the musical examples could easily be used with younger classes.

Book one's dictionary works as you'd expect. If you want to find a definition for, say, "ostinato", you'll find an entry under "O" that describes it as "a rhythmic, melodic or harmonic pattern repeated many times in succession". However, the next part of the definition refers you to disk C, example 36 which is an extract from "Mars", The Planets, by Gustav Holst - as clear an example of ostinato as you are likely find. The corresponding score can be found in the second book.

The definition and example presented would certainly suffice for GCSE-level studies, but students looking for an even more detailed exposition are referred to examples from one of Debussy's string quartets. And anyone seeking further clarification is directed to "The Elements of Music" and an explanation of Purcell's Song upon a Ground with its repeated four bar melody. Such comprehensiveness is impressive, but it puts the onus firmly on teachers to find appropriate examples for their students and necessitates detailed lesson preparation. With almost 300 examples to choose from, the most obvious method would surely be to "burn" the relevant sound clips on to a CD, which could be accompanied by photocopied score and text. This, of course, would be subject to some sort of licensing agreement with the publishers. At pound;75 a time, even the best-financed schools are going to baulk at one copy per student. You wonder, too, whether Rhinegold will, for future editions, take advantage of the huge capacity of DVD-Rom to incorporate the first book, and perhaps all three CDs on to a single DVD where dictionary definitions are hyper-linked to the appropriate sound recordings.

But this is to quibble. The Dictionary of Music in Sound is an inspiring and scholarly addition to music teaching resources and is sure to be welcomed by music teachers everywhere.

* While lacking the depth and detailed analytical sophistication of The Dictionary of Music in Sound, Hutchinson's Music Reference Suite will appeal to music departments on a tight budget. At pound;14.99, this single CD-Rom has clearly written definitions and sound-clips from a wide range of musical genres including jazz, blues and rock. It also includes features such as musical timelines and interactive quizzes.

Dictionary of Music in Sound by David Bowman published by Rhinegold Two books and three CDsPrice: pound;76.50 Can be ordered online Reference Suite published by HutchinsonPrice: pound;14.99 Available from Focus

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you