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Musical notes: Scorsese, Madonna, and the awfulness of millennium pop

Inside a subversive history of music

Alexis Petridis, chief rock and pop critic
It was pure coincidence that I found myself reading Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History when I heard about the launch of the “first full-service record label built on AI music discovery”, but the two fitted together perfectly. Gioia is an American musician and author: in the past, he’s written a series of acclaimed books about jazz, but Music: A Subversive History is by some distance the most wide-ranging and provocative thing he’s come up with.

In terms of scope, well, put it this way: it starts out talking about a bear’s thighbone that Neanderthal hunters apparently turned into a primitive flute somewhere between 43,000 and 82,000 years ago and ends up, 450 pages later, discussing K-pop and EDM. His central theory: music is a kind of magical, ungovernable force that connects us to ancient shamanistic rituals, it’s primarily fuelled by sex and violence – anyone horrified by the lyrics of drill or death metal should consider that the first instruments were made from body parts and would once have literally dripped with blood – and all attempts to reduce it to mathematical formulae or “quasi-science”, while useful, go against its intrinsic nature. He’s really not keen on Pythagoras, whose mathematical theories about tuning underpin “music as it is taught in every university and conservatory in the world today”.

Photograph: Basic Books

I didn’t agree with everything Gioia had to say, but something about that central theory stuck with me. For one thing, there is something magical and ungovernable about music: that weird tingling sensation you get when you hear something you love

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