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Book Review

Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound

Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound
David Bowman, Editor
London: Rhinegold Publishing Ltd. 2002. Two Volumes 395pp + 379pp + three CDs
ISBN-10: 0946890870
ISBN-13: 978-0946890873
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

The Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound is an ambitious undertaking. And a successful one. There aren't many music lovers whose shelves, bedsides, suitcases or CD racks – but not coffee tables – wouldn't benefit from its presence, although it is expensive at £75 (or $150).

In two nicely-produced paperback A5-sized volumes (of 395 and 379 pages) come first a dictionary of music with a technical emphasis (hence an emphasis on performance) rather than on composers or developmental musical history. And second a comprehensive collection of 274 clearly presented, annotated musical examples. The latter are all available again on three corresponding audio CDs which comprise the third item in the Dictionary from British publishers Rhinegold, who take the credit for such respected journals as Classical Music, Opera Now, Music Teacher, Piano, The Singer and Early Music Today. These examples are divided into three broad historical periods: from the "Dark Ages" to the early C18th; from the early C18th to the late C19th; and from 1877 to 1999.

The blurb says that this resource is aimed at students. But the generalist and specialist will benefit too from an approach recognizing that we all learn differently: by seeing and placing written definitions (there are 2,300 of them here), by following a visual representation (the musical scores), and by listening to the sound itself. Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound isn't a mere catchall, though. There are books aplenty that cover such ground. Editor David Bowman has arrived at a structure: in addition to nearly 200 pages of definitions and terms arranged alphabetically, the "Dictionary" volume also has an eight-chapter section devoted to the "Elements" of music, thus:

  1. Rhythm, meter and tempo
  2. Tonality, modality and atonality
  3. Melody, figuration and ornamentation
  4. Counterpoint
  5. Harmony
  6. Timbre and texture
  7. The structure of music
  8. Style, genre and historical context

That's pretty comprehensive. Sections range from six to 27 pages; all those subjects that you would expect get a fair look in and are very clearly explained. But – importantly – everything is well cross-referenced. Percussion, for example, is topic 6.8 (in the "Timbre and texture" chapter); 6.8.1 is "Drums of definite pitch", 6.8.2 "Drums of indefinite pitch", 6.8.3 is "Cymbals, gongs and bells" and so on. Musical examples and their corresponding audio extracts are all carefully flagged in the text; everything (in both volumes) is also indexed in a variety of ways… by date, person, topic etc. This was a huge undertaking: on page 85 under Intervals examples are drawn up in an easy-to-read table from dozens of the otherwise unconnected musical examples (and their played extracts). This is not an isolated example. The two columns and half dozen or so entries for various aspects of "Voice" also draw on multiple illustrations. Indeed the fact that each and every definition in the first part of the first volume does have an illustration (score and sound) means that a huge effort of cross referencing has taken place. Additionally, all abbreviations, symbols and conventions used are explained; as are copyrights, attributions and credits. There is a useful section on "How to Use the Dictionary".

All of this has the side effect that to use the Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound regularly will slowly but surely be to gain familiarity with the extracts – and hence their most salient contexts and relative significances and weights, one to another. So it should be realised that this is much more a comprehensive resource – and a well structured one – than a "neutral" dictionary. It's hardly likely that anyone would sit down to read through it (or at least not the dictionary definitions) from A to Z. But careful perusal of the "Elements" section would surely pay off. And you'd have the definitions, terms and sounds on hand to support and supplement.

Significantly, the performance extracts are copyrighted existing recordings; and prized ones at that – from the major labels and sources. For the most part short, they are extracts (some just a few seconds). That's usually all that's needed: they are specific illustrative support materials, not samples. It is useful to have accomplished and competent performers' illustrations. Where possible leading exponents in their fields have been chosen.

An important criterion for this kind of publication will always be the balance struck between comprehensiveness and unwieldiness. Bowman and his team have done an excellent job. Many of the less well-known terms ("B. Kl. in B" for Bassklarinette in B, the guitar technique, "Punteado", "Torculus", "Forefall", for example) are here, though few sources have everything. What's more, the space allotted to each definition varies with how much it needs in terms of complexity, importance or difficulty. The definitions, of course, are not restricted to English.

So, if you are attracted to the idea of becoming (more) familiar with all those aspects of the technicalities of music which you never got around to exploring, or to making a determined effort to revisit the elements of music which were either unclear, difficult or elusive, the Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound could well meet your needs. And/or if you are looking for a handy resource for every day reference which is both thorough and accessible, this could be it. Although it's been around for a few years, it's still very up-to-date and draws on current research and thinking. True, you will get the most from the three volumes by becoming used to the ways in which they inter-relate and complement/require one another. But as a straightforward work of reference it has both pedigree and focus.

If there were a criticism (the price is high, but there's a wealth of excellently-arranged, accessible and meticulously researched, accurate and relevant material for your money), it might be that a ring binding allowing what will surely become two well-used books to lie flat, would have been a wiser choice. But that's a small point. The Rhinegold Dictionary of Music and Sound is of undoubted value; it's easy to use, a delight to use in fact. It will satisfy the needs of many students, but particularly provide an open and authoritative entry to the dedicated but "lay" listener; then more than likely come to accompany him/her as they wish to explore more deeply the areas of greatest interest – but always skillfully related by the book(s) one to another.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Sealey