Music starters

25th December 1998 at 00:00
The Usborne First Book of The Piano. By Eileen O'Brien and John C Miles. The Usborne First Book of The Recorder. By Caroline Hooper and Philip Hawthorn. Usborne Pounds 6.99 each.

Music Theory for Beginners. By Emma Danes. Usborne Pounds 6.99. The Usborne Story of Music. By Eileen O'Brien. Usborne Pounds 4.99.

Multicoloured, animated, humanised blobs writhe over the pages of Usborne's newly-revised introductions to the piano and recorder. They insinuate themselves into staves, bend over cradles singing lullabies, and deliver straightforwardadmonitions about time, pitch and form. They are friendly, if somewhat intrusive, guides to a child's opening encounters with two instruments of very different degrees of complexity.

The piano lessons take the reader from single notes and their names, to simple tunes with repeated Cs, then, via Yankee Doodle, to some simple melodies shared with a friend or mentor, making four-handed music. The recorder book adds advice on posture, breathing and the techniques of fingering. The cartoon characters dance the can-can while quizzing young musicians about the identity of A sharp and B flat, or the difference between legato and slurred notes. The books are cheap, cheerful and effective.

The guide to theory is more advanced; it uses extracts from real scores to show how inert musical facts turn into musical eloquence. The examples are nicely varied. A Debussy prelude demonstrates the use of beams to join quavers and semi-quavers within a crotchet beat; a Tallis piece shows how four independent vocal parts can be reduced to a short score playable by two hands. Bits of Vivaldi, Haydn and Chopin illustrate the differences between grace notes, mordents and trills - a pleasant and unpretentious translation of technical terms into expressive resources.

The history guide bravely tries to do the impossible in 36 pages. From a 15,000-year-old whistle to Kurt Cobain, via opera, gamelan, madrigal and talking drums, it sets out lots of facts. But to read that "Mahler based some of his symphonies on a collection of poetry" is not the same as to hear the magical contralto setting of the "Urlicht". Knowledge about music and knowledge of music are not the same.

Yes, Mr Blunkett, it really does need to be live.

Tom Deveson

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