Reviewed by Caitlin Busch

Before beginning this book, the reader should know it is part of a continuing education series, perfect for the avid and/or adult student or hobbyist musician. But no one should assume it’s a dry old textbook! I found it to be quite the opposite: How to Listen to Great Music reminded me of my university days. While reading, I re-experienced, with sweet nostalgia, “listening” to an engaging lecture by beloved professor on a favorite subject. Now, I didn’t actually study music at university, but I have a background in piano, violin and orchestra which may make me more prone to enjoying this text than those with non-musical backgrounds – or at least those who aren’t interested in composed (a.k.a. “classical”) music.

Even with my musical background, How to Listen to Great Music is a bit of a beast, due to the amount of material covered in about 300 pages. It is a very complete history of Western music from 1600 – 1900 (the common practice, or what we call “classical” music), bookended by brief exposés on ancient and twentieth century music, and interspersed with lessons in musical syntax, trends, trivia and charts of specific compositions. Greenberg’s major point is the importance of the relationship between the development of Western music and Western society to contemporary listeners. Hearing the music in the right historical, national, and theological context is not only edifying – it makes a difference when attending performances! 

Vocabulary is presented clearly and a glossary is included for quick reference. This book also includes a separate index of compositions, organized alphabetically by composer. At first, I wished the selections were organized by period, but then I wouldn’t have been able to learn to identify them by listening for the technical and stylistic indications discussed by Greenberg.

Greenberg’s voice is charming and his asides are well-timed. He reviews important information just as the reader may start to feel overwhelmed – much as any good professor would. The material never goes dry (a risk with such an academic topic) because of the relatively quick interchange between lessons in music history and musical syntax. Greenberg himself obviously enjoys what he does and demonstrates so throughout the book – even by using humorous chapter titles and making puns on them in the text.

Anyone with an interest in composed (“classical”) music will enjoy How to Listen to Great Music. I do not believe readers with a deeper background than mine in composed music would find this text condescending. Those who make music as a hobby or attend performances regularly will certainly find pleasure in this read – whether they’re already familiar with the material or not. It is a truly thrilling review of the common practice – what we commonly call “classical” music – which includes enough music theory to bring new depth to the listening experience. Highly recommended for readers new to composed music or anyone looking for a refresher course on Western music history!

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Caitlin is a fiction writer who also dabbles in poetry, creative nonfiction and acrylic painting. When not reading, she enjoys hiking, cooking and spending time with friends and pets. She earned her B.A. in English from the University of Portland and currently resides in Louisiana.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by FSB Media. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.