The casual musician may at first glance wonder why it’s worth making a small financial investment in a musical dictionary that’s almost large and heavy enough to be used as a doorstop, but anyone with a keen interest in the history of music, musical instruments, and theory, would do well to consider the The Harvard Dictionary of Music.
Running to around one thousand pages (printed on high quality paper and with good attention to detail), this hardback edition covers a vast range of topics related to music. Though it’s easy to use Google or an app to find out about a musical term whenever the need arises, there is still a lot to be said for having a single printed volume of reference, even in the Internet age.
It focuses primarily on Western art music but also covers world and popular music. As well as many short and simple definitions, there are a number of significant articles on larger topics, including musical styles/genres and instruments. The only really significant omission is that of composer biographies, but this is understandable for a single book.
The very definition of ‘dictionary’ may in fact be its downfall when studying a specific topic encompassing a number of diverse terms which require definition. That is, the book is in alphabetical order. So while you can get a detailed definition of both ‘scale’ and ‘mode’, if you want to study these two closely-linked topics, you will find yourself moving between two different sections of the book.
The great joy of a book such as this is not simply the ability to look up a term and have it defined, but in leafing through and discovering new things during otherwise idle moments. Despite my love for all things electronic, modern and synthetic – in the musical world – there is still something immensely satisfying in having access to a beautifully printed and bound reference work such as this. For less than $40 it really can’t be beaten.
I would heartily recommend The Harvard Dictionary of Music to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history or theory of music. For those who wish to know more about composers and musicians, an accompanying Biographical Dictionary of Music is also available for a similar price.