3000 years of music in six hours?

To chart the history of western music in six hours, from its roots to the present day, is certainly no mean feat. But this is exactly what Howard Goodall attempts to do in his six-part BBC television series, ‘The Story of Music.’ The risks involved are paramount: Goodall will doubtlessly leave a lot out. But his greatest challenge is finding the right balance between being knowledgeable, but also approachable; to demonstrate that classical music can be, and is actually interesting.

It is the presenter who often reveals that this balance has gone awry. One complains about these high-brow types who only speak to an elite, well-educated audience. Yet even worse are those who are so sickeningly sweet or overly chummy that one cannot take anything they say seriously. The programme-makers seem to think that the only way the general viewer will be able to digest the ‘difficult’ topic of classical music is through these Blue Peter-esque presenters.

With Goodall, however, the BBC has found classical music presenting gold. He is presentable, charismatic even, but also knowledgeable. Most important is the fact that he is never patronising. In the first episode he covers a lot of ground: charting the development of notation, harmony and various instruments, as well as the birth of opera. He tracks music’s progress from its pre-historic existence to the sixteenth century, covering over 2000 years of music.

Put like that, one would expect Goodall to gloss over a lot. While this may be true, it proves that Goodall is taking his audience seriously. He does not beat about the bush spoon-feeding his information, but explains it clearly, and then moves on. Yet Goodall does not shy away from looking at certain aspects in more detail, being unafraid of getting down to the nitty-gritty of explaining. He spends some time on the development of harmony, examining why we hear things as we do – something our Blue Peter presenters would stand well clear of.

This series then, is more than just a story. As far as I can tell, it is the best introduction for anyone who is interested in music but might not know a great deal about it. This is purely down to the fact that, by avoiding being patronising, Goodall actually tells us things which are genuinely interesting. Let’s hope then that people actually watch it.

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