When I first planned this website, I scanned several hundred of my books and made lists of the ones I thought I would eventually review. I soon had confidence that I had more than enough great books to keep recommending for years. But one book I walked by, and assumed I would never recommend, is also one of my favorite books. I thought it was just too expensive and perhaps too specialized for most people. I now realize that “most people” is an irrelevant concept for hooversworld. I am not talking to most people, I am talking to you.
And one of my all time favorite books, certainly top 25, is The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, edited by Stanley Sadie (Macmillan Reference (UK), 1984). Despite its $500+ price tag, I have to tell you about this book. Even if you never buy one for yourself, I urge you to seek it out in a library – and in the process remind yourself of how important old-fashioned libraries can be.
This “book” is really a 3-volume set, containing over 2500 pages. It is perhaps the most comprehensive reference book (or set) that I own. In years of finding out about musical instruments, I have yet to find an instrument that is not in this book.
That’s saying a lot.
I have sought out odd instruments in Morocco, in the Chinatown section of Bangkok, and in the backroads of Bali. I have searched through retail and online suppliers of world instruments like Lark in the Morning. One instrument I bought in Bangkok took me 6 months just to figure out its name: the people in the “store” did not exactly speak English. The instrument, a cluster of 16 bamboos about 30 inches long, forming a giant harmonica with a beeswax sound chamber, turned out to be called a “khaen.” I am still learning how to play it, although all the visitors to my museum-like house seem to love its odd, loud sounds.
In my book Hoover’s Vision I said that the most amazing machine I own is a 36” Balinese gong, which of course is a machine for moving air to create deep, rumbling sounds (at about 53 cycles per second for you physicists). Its sound is extraordinary.
More recently my love of instruments led me to study the pipe organ, and find some amazing software that lets me have one on a laptop (more about that in a future post).
The entries in the Grove Dictionary – taken in part and expanded from the famous 29-volume, $1500 Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians – cover not only individual instruments but instrument makers and instrument categories and families. If you don’t find what you are looking for under one entry, it will show up somewhere else, such as under lamellaphone, lute, or lyre. You will find in-depth histories of the guitar and the organ – one of the oldest instruments – covering how they work, where they come from, how they are used in different parts of the world, different “species,” and who composed for them. Plus bibliographies for further research.
I cannot think of another book in my vast reference library which has ever answered every question I could think of about the subject. So you can see why this book is so dear to me, high price or no.
If this subject intrigues you but you don’t have hundreds of dollars burning a hole in your pocket, get the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments by Abrashev and Gadiev, shown to the right, under $20 at amazon. That should be enough to whet your musical appetite!