Capturing Music by Thomas Forrest Kelly

Capturing Music by Thomas Forrest KellyCapturing Music: The Story of Notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on November 3, 2014
Pages: 256
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.
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In today s digital landscape, we have the luxury of experiencing music anytime, anywhere. But before this instant accessibility and dizzying array of formats before CDs, the eight-track tape, the radio, and the turntable there was only one recording technology: music notation. It allowed singers and soloists to travel across great distances and perform their work with stunning fidelity, a feat that we now very much take for granted. Thomas Forrest Kelly transports us to the lively and complex world of monks and monasteries, of a dove singing holy chants into the ear of a saint, and of bustling activity in the Cathedral of Notre Dame an era when the only way to share even the simplest song was to learn it by rote, church to church and person to person. With clarity and a sense of wonder, Kelly tells a story that spans five hundred years, leading us on a journey through medieval Europe and showing how we learned to keep track of rhythm, melody, and precise pitch with a degree of accuracy previously unimagined.
Kelly reveals the technological advances that led us to the system of notation we use today, placing each step of its evolution in its cultural and intellectual context. Companion recordings by the renowned Blue Heron ensemble are paired with vibrant illuminated manuscripts, bringing the art to life and allowing readers to experience something of the marvel that medieval writers must have felt when they figured out how to capture music for all time."


Capturing Music is an “entertaining history of how musicians learned to record music for all time, filled with art that sings.” This is the story of music notation, complete with musical examples, vivid, full-color illustrations, and a CD of accompanying music performed by esteemed early music vocal ensemble Blue Heron.

I love how Kelly connects a human reason to each development in notation. These changes were (and are) not the result of scholars with nothing better to do, thinking up ways to make things more difficult. This was brilliant problem-solving that met very real needs of a living, breathing language as it evolved and became more complex over time.

Serious musicians who enjoy theory and history will especially enjoy this read. Kelly has an engaging, impressively succinct writing style. But Capturing Music isn’t pop history; the content is quite academic and meticulously researched. It gets pretty technical, especially in the latter half of the book, so readers will probably want to be already interested in the topic going in. I think a working knowledge of music theory (even if basic) is essential as well.

I enjoyed hearing Kelly talk about his book in his own words:

Do you read academic titles related to your profession, just for the fun that comes with learning new things? Give me an example of a book you enjoyed!