The best music books

17 authors have picked their favorite books about music and why they recommend each book.

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There Was a Time

By Alan Leeds,

Book cover of There Was a Time: James Brown, the Chitlin' Circuit, and Me

Alan Leeds does a wonderful job presenting his eyewitness experiences as part of the James Brown entourage in the 1960s and beyond. The reader can’t wait to find out what happens next in the riveting story he presents of Soul Brother No. 1, the “hardest working man in show business.” It’s a fascinating tale, which presents Brown as an innovative musical force, determined artist, forceful businessman, and unpredictable personality. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the Chitlin’ Circuit when soul music was taking off as a dynamic new genre—as recalled by a young, Jewish kid from Queens who joined James Brown’s team and learned the music business at the hand of the performer who mastered it.


Who am I?

I grew up with the music of the 1960s. Going to packed, pheromone-heavy dances featuring The Lincolns—Nova Scotia’s most popular and most soulful band—were a huge part of my teenage years. Those experiences implanted a deep love of R&B, and somehow or other pointed me in the direction of becoming a writer. It’s a bit of a mystery how it all works. In any case, of all my books, none was as much fun to work on as Kings of Friday Night. It has received lots of love, including from readers who grew up far from the time and place I write about. Long live local bands! And live music everywhere!


I wrote...

Kings of Friday Night: The Lincolns

By A.J.B. Johnston,

Book cover of Kings of Friday Night: The Lincolns

What is my book about?

At its core, this is a book about a quest. The story begins in the late 1950s in Truro, Nova Scotia, where a group of young, aspiring musicians want to play the new rock ‘n’ roll. At the time, their town was divided by race, religion, and class. One thing only brought people together: the new music. Over a span of ten years, The Lincolns, the local "kings of Friday night," played trademark rock 'n' roll, R&B, and soul at dances and campuses across Nova Scotia and into New Brunswick. Along the way, The Lincolns changed the lives of small-town kids clamoring for music to move their feet, their hips—and ultimately their hearts. It’s a touching, true-life, universal tale filled with personal recollections and nostalgic delight. The book features a foreword by former Lincoln John MacLachlan Gray and an afterword by the band’s singer, Frank MacKay.

Blues People

By Leroi Jones,

Book cover of Blues People

I have gone back to Blues People for all three of my books. His insight into the blues, jazz, and the relationship of white people and Black music still resonates, and the book is now 60 years old. Things would get much weirder in his life personally and between the races socially in the years after, but this book is no-bullshit truth.

Who am I?

I have a sophisticated education, including a Ph.D. in History from the University of Massachusetts. I have had a career, if that’s precisely the word, in the music business as the publicist for the Grateful Dead. I spent ten years researching what became On Highway 61. I have been a close observer of America’s racial politics at least since 1962, when the head of the Hollywood NAACP, James Tolbert, and his family, moved in next door to my family’s home in the white working-class neighborhood of Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Mr. Tolbert instructed me in music among other things, and I’ve been studying ever since.


I wrote...

On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

By Dennis McNally,

Book cover of On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom

What is my book about?

61 traces the relationship of African American culture, generally music, from the 1850s to the 1960s. It begins with Henry David Thoreau, whose thinking on government was profoundly influenced by slavery and his role in supporting abolition. Mark Twain grew from a conventional racist to a writer who could write the powerfully liberating satire of Huckleberry Finn, in considerable part due to the influence of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Ragtime was an essential element in bringing the modern to mainstream America. Jazz in various forms each influenced white youth, from the Austin High Gang to Jack Kerouac. And Bob Dylan synthesized black form (rock and roll) with literature to make rock and roll high art.

Fortune's Fool

By Fred Goodman,

Book cover of Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman, Jr., Warner Music, and an Industry in Crisis

The story of how Warner Bros Records, perhaps the best, most profitable yet artist-friendly record label in the 1970s and 1980s became heavily damaged when it was bought out in the 1990s and put under corporate auspices and expectations. Goodman communicates the financial details in a clear and accessible way, as well as the music executives’ singular personalities. Also offers a close-up view of how the corporate execs, especially with their short-term focus on quarterly results, failed to deal with the challenges of Napster and downloads at the turn of the century. An insightful view of the changing components of the music business in our time.


Who am I?

As an author and educator, my work centers on the history, business, and art of the music industry and film industry. I don’t think my fellow historians use musical evidence enough as a primary document that reveals much about the society and time period one is writing aboutjust as much as the usual primary and secondary documents historians use.  I try to ensure my books are entertaining as well as rigorously researched. I’m also a songwriter, with many years in the music biz, and have done much work in radio, especially crafting music shows. I’m always discovering amazing stuff from various eras, and it’s not much fun if you don’t share it, which is part of why I’m on Twitter.


I wrote...

Duke Ellington's America

By Harvey G. Cohen,

Book cover of Duke Ellington's America

What is my book about?

The most thorough, nuanced portrait yet of this towering figure, Duke Ellington’s America highlights Ellington’s importance as a historical figure as well as arguably America’s greatest composer. Harvey G. Cohen paints a vivid picture of Ellington’s life and times, taking him from his youth in black Washington, D.C., to the heights of worldwide acclaim. Mining extensive archives, many never before available, plus new interviews with Ellington’s friends, family, band, and business associates, Cohen illuminates his constantly evolving approach to composition, performance, and the music business—as well as issues of race, equality, religion and the Cold War.

Ellington’s own voice animates the book throughout, giving Duke Ellington’s America an intimacy and immediacy unmatched by any previous account. One of the Washington Post’s best books of the year.

Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

By Barry Mazor,

Book cover of Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music

You’ve probably never heard of him, but as much as any one person, Ralph Peer created American popular music. 

A student of early musical genres, Peer traveled the country with a couple of new-fangled gadgets called a microphone and a recording machine. He sought out and discovered music that had been considered low-brow, and he carved it into the grooves of records for the wider public to enjoy: country, blues, jazz, polka, folk music of all kinds. 

For two weeks in the summer of 1927, he engineered perhaps the most famous recording sessions of them all, the Bristol Sessions, the “big bang” of country music.


Who am I?

From my earliest days I was surrounded by music, from Friday night family band to our musical Christmas card on a bright red record to trumpet trios played with my dad and brother. I went to the University of Southern California on a trumpet scholarship, then took a detour from music and tried writing. I liked it. To this day, one of my favorite things is combining these two interests to create novels, stories, and plays about music. Since moving to Nashville, I’ve immersed myself in American popular music and have loved returning to my roots. 


I wrote...

Lord of the Mountain

By Ronald Kidd,

Book cover of Lord of the Mountain

What is my book about?

This is the story of a fictional character, thirteen-year-old Nate Owens, who witnesses one of the seminal events in American music, a series of 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, where the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and other mothers and fathers of country music were first discovered. 

Nate’s family has a secret, and it’s wrapped up in a song. But his preacher father hates music, and when he catches Nate in Bristol with the Carters, he comes down hard on him. So Nate sets out in search of himself and the song he thinks will heal his family. Set during the “big bang” of country music, Nate’s journey of self-discovery parallels that of a region finding its voice for the first time.

The Music Lesson

By Victor Wooten,

Book cover of The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music

The music lesson is a must-read for not only every musician but an inspiration to non-musicians as well. The book captures the real reason for playing music. The book straddles between a fictional novel and an indispensable true story of why we play music. It is clear in every word, page, and chapter that we play music to share feelings and communicate inspirational messages that can change your life, make you happy, fulfilled, inspired, and thirst for more. 

I love this book not only for the content and inspirational message, but for the style of writing. It’s so engaging to read because he makes you feel like you are in the same room, on the same stage, and with the same band as Victor. Love it!


Who am I?

I am the former Principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony and am currently active as a soloist, educator, and author of three books on the mind, body, and spirit of music. My first book is about the mind, The Inner Game of Music, followed by The Mastery of Music on the human spirit of over 120 great musicians and Bringing Music to Life exploring physical skills of communication of all artists, actors, and dancers. I hope to inspire artists of all disciplines, that our performances come from our hearts and souls and not the technical form of dance, music, or words. Performers express feelings and use this gift to spread inspiration and joy to the world.


I wrote...

The Inner Game of Music

By Barry Green, W. Timothy Gallwey,

Book cover of The Inner Game of Music

What is my book about?

Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, the popular author of the Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Skiing, Golf, and Work. Together they have taken the same principles which proved so successful when used in sports and applied them to music. The Inner Game is designed to help every musician overcome obstacles, improve concentration, reduce nervousness, and paving the way for heightened performance.

Green explains how innate skills can be enhanced by focusing on the music rather than outer games of technique and awards. The technique can be summarized in 4 words: turn up the music and are used for the purpose of drowning out the shouts...that come from the interfering voices of doubt, fear, and judgment. Instead of listening to the inner voices, the musician focuses only on musical sounds that include their awareness, commitment, and trust skills.

The Listening Book

By W.A. Mathieu,

Book cover of The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music

The Listening Book is about rediscovering the power of listening as an instrument of self-discovery and personal transformation. By exploring our capacity for listening to sounds of music, nature, and one’s own breathing, we can awaken and release our full creative powers. Mathieu guides the reader to hearing the connections between all sounds of music and everyday life. It is insightful and surprising to notice what is around us at any moment of the day and apply this heightened awareness to understanding and connecting with music listening or performance. This awareness can be neglected but applicable to connecting our inner soul with the outside world and to life. Brilliant illuminations from a genius composer, musician and teacher W.A. Mathieu. 


Who am I?

I am the former Principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony and am currently active as a soloist, educator, and author of three books on the mind, body, and spirit of music. My first book is about the mind, The Inner Game of Music, followed by The Mastery of Music on the human spirit of over 120 great musicians and Bringing Music to Life exploring physical skills of communication of all artists, actors, and dancers. I hope to inspire artists of all disciplines, that our performances come from our hearts and souls and not the technical form of dance, music, or words. Performers express feelings and use this gift to spread inspiration and joy to the world.


I wrote...

The Inner Game of Music

By Barry Green, W. Timothy Gallwey,

Book cover of The Inner Game of Music

What is my book about?

Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey, the popular author of the Inner Game of Tennis, Inner Skiing, Golf, and Work. Together they have taken the same principles which proved so successful when used in sports and applied them to music. The Inner Game is designed to help every musician overcome obstacles, improve concentration, reduce nervousness, and paving the way for heightened performance.

Green explains how innate skills can be enhanced by focusing on the music rather than outer games of technique and awards. The technique can be summarized in 4 words: turn up the music and are used for the purpose of drowning out the shouts...that come from the interfering voices of doubt, fear, and judgment. Instead of listening to the inner voices, the musician focuses only on musical sounds that include their awareness, commitment, and trust skills.

The Infinite Harmony

By Michael Hayes,

Book cover of The Infinite Harmony: Musical Structures in Science and Theology

The innovative thinking in this book inspired me to put my original ideas into writing. Here was someone else who was looking into the profound origins of humanity and how the world is made up. It reassured me I was on the right track in associating the Major Arcana of the Tarot with the I-Ching. Michael Hayes goes further in detecting a numerical and musical synthesis between ancient doctrines and current scientific discoveries. It is not a quick read, but a real eye-opener. Whilst not agreeing with all of it, there was so much fascinating information; I had to read it through twice straight off.


Who am I?

I have always seen my life as a journey, with lessons to be learnt along the way. Adventures on land and sea have drawn me into contact with many races and traditions and brought me close to nature in its many moods. When a physical journey ends, an inner journey takes me in directions I had never looked at before. Early spiritual questioning led me to eastern philosophies and made me aware of the underlying links between all cultures. In relying on my own experiences rather than what others have written, I believe my writing brings a freshness and individuality to the age-old questions of who we are and where we are going.


I wrote...

The Tao in the Tarot

By Sarita Armstrong,

Book cover of The Tao in the Tarot

What is my book about?

The Tao in the Tarot correlates the archetypes of the Major Arcana of the Tarot and hexagrams of The I-Ching, which Taoism underpins. After placing the 22 Major Arcana cards in a circle, like a Wheel of Life, I came to appreciate the oriental aspect concealed within it. Each tarot archetype is yin or yang in its attributes and a combined yin/yang card joins each pair of opposites. They formed a trail of triangles which reminded me of a string of DNA.

The basic numbers inherent in the Major Arcana and the I-Ching connect these two divinatory methods. The grail legend, antique deities, music, and dance are no less a part of the narrative.

Zen Guitar

By Philip Toshio Sudo,

Book cover of Zen Guitar

This book hit me hard and fast. It validated what I previously thought were my private ideas. I’d never met the author, but it seemed to be written about me… for me… or was it written for and about the other 100k plus readers who must have felt the same? I don’t know. Maybe you’re next.


Who am I?

I’ve been immersed in playing and teaching guitar and in rock culture all my life. Since graduating from The Guitar Institute of Technology in 1987, I’ve been a full-time guitar professional. So, I’m known in my hometown of Baltimore as the go to guy for rock guitar chores of all kinds. I play for companies like Johns Hopkins, Center Stage and The Baltimore Ravens. I taught Guitar at The Gilman School for thirteen years. I’ve played every venue from the biggest stadiums to the smallest clubs. My publications include fifteen guitar books internationally distributed by Alfred Publications and features in most major trade journals. Endorsements: Paul Reed Smith Guitars, Ernie Ball Strings and Fractal Audio.


I wrote...

The Total Rock Guitarist: A Fun and Comprehensive Overview of Rock Guitar Playing, Book & CD

By Tobias Hurwitz,

Book cover of The Total Rock Guitarist: A Fun and Comprehensive Overview of Rock Guitar Playing, Book & CD

What is my book about?

The Total Rock Guitarist is a complete method for beginning, intermediate, and advanced guitarists. Since it covers all levels, it is the ideal textbook for any rock guitar student, teacher, or classroom. The book is divided into categories such as Chords and Rhythm Guitar, Scales and Lead Guitar, Music Theory, and more. Each category begins with very easy examples and smoothly progresses from there to advanced.

Of course, there is plenty of explanatory text that teaches the reasoning behind the examples. Slide Guitar – Fingerpicking – Shredding -Blues -Funk, and more. It’s all in there. All examples are presented in tablature and standard notation. 

Becoming Belafonte

By Judith E. Smith,

Book cover of Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical

As I was writing my book, I delved more into the professional singing career of Harry Belafonte. I knew him as the singer of familiar, toe-tapping, globally-inspired hits (i.e. “The Banana Boat Song,” “Jump In the Line,” “Matilda”). I didn’t know about the depth and breadth of his commitment to racial justice. Nor did I realize, more importantly, how his Civil Rights activism informed and shaped his artistic career as an actor and a musician. An eye-opening read about a cultural icon.


Who am I?

I am a theater historian whose research focuses on African American theater of 1940s-50s. While other periods and movements—the Harlem Renaissance (1920s), the Federal Theatre Project (1930s), the Black Arts Movement (1960s), and contemporary theater—have been well studied and documented, I saw a gap of scholarship around the 1940s-50s; I wondered why those years had been largely overlooked. As I dived deeper, I saw how African American performance culture (ie. theater, film, television, music) of the later-20th Century had its roots in the history of those somewhat overlooked decades. I’m still investigating that story, and these books have helped me do it.


I wrote...

The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

By Jonathan Shandell,

Book cover of The American Negro Theatre and the Long Civil Rights Era

What is my book about?

You may know of the American Negro Theatre (ANT), a neighborhood theater company in Harlem that lasted for about ten years. The writers this company produced—Abram Hill, Theodore Brown, Owen Dodson—are not household names. You may not recognize the title Anna Lucasta: a comedy about an African American family that the ANT turned into a runaway Broadway hit in the 1940s. But the legacy of this theater company—and the work of its writers, its actors, and its productions—was key for creating the popular African American culture we all do know.

To fully understand the emergence of Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and The Cosby Show, you need to know about the American Negro Theatre and its transformative artistic legacy.

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth

By Joscelyn Godwin,

Book cover of Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: Mysticism in Music from Antiquity to the Avant-Garde

I remember reading this book over the summer when I was on the road with a recording company. It is filled with anecdotes about the metaphysical, transcendental, spiritual, and mystic properties of music. The thing I find so fascinating about these stories is not if they are true or not, but the belief systems of these ancient people, and the power and faith they put into music.


Who am I?

When you get a PhD in music, you end up with a lot of music books. Like, hundreds of them. At the end of every semester I could never bring myself to sell my textbooks because I just love books. Over the years I’ve continued to collect books about music, and books about everything. I’m happy that now a few have my name on the spine. 


I wrote...

Music Theory for Electronic Music Producers: The producer's guide to harmony, chord progressions, and song structure in the MIDI grid.

By J. Anthony Allen,

Book cover of Music Theory for Electronic Music Producers: The producer's guide to harmony, chord progressions, and song structure in the MIDI grid.

What is my book about?

As an online and university class, Dr. Allen has had over 50,000 students use this ground-breaking curriculum to learn music theory. Students and Producers who have wanted to learn music theory to improve their own music, but have been intimidated by traditional approaches, music notation, and abstract concepts will find this book to be the answer they have been looking for.

From the Author: “How music theory is usually taught is unfair. It starts with the assumption that you can read music and understand the language of classical music. My book leaves all of that behind – focusing only on the MIDI grid that producers are already familiar with to learn all the key concepts of music theory, and ultimately, make better music.”

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