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Music to Raise the Dead: The Secret Origins of Musicology
I'm publishing my new book on Substack—here's the prologue and introduction
As promised, I’m publishing my new book on Substack. I will share it in installments—my current plan is to send out one or two sections each month. And if you’re enjoying my usual articles, don’t worry, they will continue too.
Today I’m sharing the prologue and introduction to the book. They are short and sweet, and you can read them complete below.
But first, here’s the table of contents for the entire work. Each chapter can be read as a stand-alone piece, but will obviously take on greater significance in the larger context of the entire book.
MUSIC TO RAISE THE DEAD: The Secret Origins of Musicology
Table of Contents
What Is Really Inside the Briefcase in Pulp Fiction?
Where Do Music Genres Come From?
Can Music Still Do All This Today?
Below are the dedication, epigraphs, prologue, and introduction. I will share chapter one in a few days’ time.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
MUSIC TO RAISE THE DEAD
The Secret Origins of Musicology
by Ted Gioia
This book is dedicated to my teachers and mentors, especially John Ashley, Art Barnes, Donald Davie, Martin Evans, Ray Garza, Stan Getz, William Goodfellow, John Heine, Michael Inwood, David Kennedy, Konnie Krislock, Sheldon Meyer, Ken Oshman, James T. S. Porterfield, Owen Roe, Hubert Sagnières, Grover Sales, Dr. Herb Wong, Robert Zider, and the Sisters of Providence at St. Joseph’s School in Hawthorne, California.
Perhaps a God can do it. But can you tell me how a person finds a path through the lyre’s strings?
Rainer Maria Rilke (from Sonnets to Orpheus)
I would do anything for love.
I'd run right into hell and back.
Meat Loaf (from “I Would Do Anything for Love”)
There is a musicology you can’t learn at Juilliard or other music conservatories. The professors there don’t know it, or even suspect it exists, although it unlocks the mysteries of the oldest and most enduring musical practices in human history.
In comparison with this kind of musicology, conventional harmony and its rules are small things indeed. This deeper science of music survives in the margins of our culture, disguised and degraded. But it’s the most powerful body of knowledge on songs that human society has ever known.
In this tradition, a path of radical self-transformation can be pursued through extreme experiences—rites of passage in which music plays the key role. This pathway involves techniques that have retained their efficacy and a surprising amount of consistency over the course of more than 2,500 years.
Perhaps most surprising of all, musicians who participate in this alternative musicology take on the mantle of heroes.
No, I’m not joking—I am deadly serious about this. Musicians trained in this hidden musicology can serve as reliable guides on our most momentous journeys, and conductors at key junctures in human life. The performers who master these techniques not only reveal but, to some extent, create the defining stages and milestone moments in our personal evolution as individuals. They have even made progress in charting the dark territory outside and beyond our everyday experiences.
Do you doubt that music lessons can do all that?
Well, here’s something even stranger. In every significant field of human understanding—religion, medicine, law, history, philosophy, psychology, even science and mathematics—the musicians associated with this tradition originally laid the groundwork. That’s a story the history books won’t tell you. And though their significance is mostly forgotten nowadays, the signs of their innovations are everywhere for those perceptive enough to see them.
In fact, the power of this heroic tradition persists in the current moment, even if unrecognized. By reclaiming its history we also empower our own music-making and shared culture. Instead of viewing songs as mere diversion and entertainment, we can draw on their deeper capacities, and in turn develop our own.
Let me start with a confession.
I wasn’t thinking about music when I embarked on the path that became this book. I wasn’t even planning to write a book. I was far more concerned about my life, what it meant, and how I should lead it.
At the beginning I had a simple question: What does a hero do on a journey? I joked with my family that I was on a quest, like the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table—but I was pursuing it in my own cussed way. Namely by intensive reading and research, starting with the oldest documents I could find. I hoped they would show me how a person—or a seeker, as I preferred to call it—could find a pure heart and a meaningful pathway in life.
I thought I had some notions about all this already—but it turned out that almost everything I thought I understood about heroism was wrong. Yet the greater shock was that this question changed my entire conception of music. And that was an area I was certain I already understood.
But I didn’t.
I definitely wasn’t planning to write a music book. I hadn’t even considered the possibility that music had anything to do with my quest. But now I had no choice—I did have to write a music book, if only to share what I had learned with others.
But it would be a very unusual music book.
I won’t say more at this stage, except that the chapters ahead reveal the magical threads of a heroic musicology that has completely transformed my conception of songs and what they do. Even better, I hope to show what we can gain by bringing it back into the center of our culture.
The Hero with a Thousand Songs
Back in the mid-1980s, a consultant working for Disney wrote a seven-page memo outlining twelve stages of a hero’s quest. His goal was simple: “to describe the course of a feature film of ninety minutes to two hours.” This compact description of a hero’s journey created such a buzz in the studio that Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg was soon assigning it as required reading for his team.
Before long the consultant’s memo was spreading like a wildfire through the Southern California entertainment community. This 12-step program was faxed to friends and colleagues, borrowed by other studios, handed out at writing classes, and showed up anywhere and everywhere creative professionals needed to impose narrative structure on their stories.
The author of the memo, Christopher Vogler, had read Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology while studying cinema at USC. Although he wasn’t the first to grasp the potential of mythic material for film—Star Wars had already proven conclusively the commercial value of this approach a few years earlier—Vogler had a knack for summarizing and clarifying Campbell’s complex ideas, and turning them into a simple roadmap for storytellers. He eventually expanded his memo into a bestselling book, entitled The Writer’s Journey, which not only inspired filmmakers but also, as he explains it, “novelists, animators, computer game designers, playwrights, actors, dancers, songwriters, soldiers, travel agents, and social workers.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that every facet of popular culture now relies on this recipe in the new millennium. Once you know the twelve stages of the hero’s journey, you see them everywhere—from comic books to celebrity biopics, and every other facet of the entertainment economy.
It all unfolds like clockwork: the hero starts in the ordinary world, then comes a call of adventure. The hero initially refuses, but an encounter with a wise mentor leads to a decisive moment of commitment. Various challenges and reversals ensue until, in the story’s climax, our protagonist seizes the prize or achieves the victory, and then returns transformed to the real world, lauded and applauded by all (especially the audience, who are encouraged to come back for a sequel, prequel, or some other spin-off).
This Hollywood success story is impressive, and not just from a moneymaking angle. It’s no small thing to take the most individualistic narrative of them all, a hero’s perilous mission and eventual triumph, and reduce it to an unvarying formula. But I’m sorry to say that, if you’re looking for information on that kind of quest, you’re reading the wrong book.
In the interest of full disclosure, you need to know that I have no wisdom to share about “the course of a feature film of ninety minutes to two hours.” Even more to the point, I’m dismayed that the most influential research on transformative quests in the 21st century came out of the Walt Disney corporate empire.
Maybe you should be concerned about this too. The myths and rituals that gave meaning to earlier societies, shaping and enriching the lives of individuals and knitting them into the larger community, weren’t designed to serve as marketplace commodities or theme park attractions. When the quest is degraded in such a way, we all suffer.
My goal here is much larger—although with fewer sequel and spinoff opportunities. My aim is to trace the real-world origins of the heroic narrative as a transformative personal experience, not something that merely takes place in a story. Some readers—realizing that I can’t help them secure a movie deal or design a video game—have probably already given up on me, put off by this admission. I wish them well.
But for those who remain, I have some good news to share: the history of the real-life quest is just as fascinating as the Hollywood hero’s journey, and it’s a story that’s never been told before. Best of all, it can provide much more than diversion and entertainment. It’s transformative in every sense of the word.
The term vision quest first emerged in nineteenth century academic circles as a way of describing rites of passages in Native American communities. Some of these were extremely dangerous, resulting in governmental prohibitions—the Sun Dance, for example, was criminalized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1883, and the ban wasn’t officially lifted until 1934. But the essence of these rites wasn’t the superficial hardships, but the vision itself. Those who underwent the dangers were rewarded, not with the external prizes so cherished by Hollywood filmmakers (a Maltese falcon or lost Ark of the Covenant), but enlightenment and spiritual awareness. They also gained practical skills of genuine value in day-to-day life. We tend to use the term visionary loosely nowadays—referring to anyone with a business plan or political agenda—but it had a much deeper significance in those traditional settings.
Even the concept of a vision quest has gotten degraded, applied loosely or often ironically in a wide range of inappropriate contexts. I’ve heard people describe everything from a trip to Elvis’s mansion Graceland to a wine-tasting tour as a vision quest. But the term is more properly applied to the kind of hero’s journey described in the pages ahead. In this regard, the Native American vision quest can serve as a role model, or what sociologist Max Weber called an ideal type. This kind of vision quest is the recipe, not for a screenplay or video game, but something larger.
Perhaps most surprising of all is the manner in which these authentic quests directly rely on music. Songs are at the heart of this journey—and that’s true not only today but as far back as we can trace, even to prehistoric times. We are not used to dealing with music in this manner. Academic and popular studies of the hero’s quest usually pay no attention whatsoever to songs, and most people would tell you that there is no connection between these two subjects. But, as this book will demonstrate, this is a significant oversight. The hero’s quest originated from song, and for thousands of years drew its force and energy from music.
And this connection has continued into the current day, although in ways obscured by the commoditized hero’s journey of mass-market media and pop psychology. As a result, this inquiry will force us to recalibrate much of what we take for granted about music. As we shall soon see,
The hero originated as an actual musician.
The quest depended on songs, not weapons or James Bond-ish gadgets.
Musicology itself started out as type of sorcery, a kind of divination for heroes.
Much of this has never been written about before, but comprehending it is absolutely central to a grasp of songs as forces in human history and everyday life, even in our digital age.
By the way, this book could perhaps be described as the result of my own personal quest. For many years now, I have built my research and writing on a very simple statement of purpose—which I repeat, almost as a mantra, on every possible occasion, in print or public lectures: Music is a source of enchantment and a catalyst in human life, and my vocation is to celebrate its often forgotten power, not just as music history but also as a latent potentiality in our own day-to-day surroundings. In other words, songs are not just songs, but agents of change for individuals and societies.
Perhaps those sound like empty words, mere platitudes, but I take them very seriously. And I see this book as providing both the ultimate test case and a decisive confirmation of this alternative view of music. If a song can actually empower the hero’s quest, consider what else it might prove capable of doing—for us personally or as part of our larger communities?
Grasping those hidden potentialities, as history and current-day practice, is the purpose of this book. Along the way, we will deal with Hollywood movies and video games and other manifestations of the quest in today’s popular culture. But we will come to recognize these as degraded versions of a transformative experience that mostly happens in our hearts and minds, and not in a theater or on a screen.
And here’s our starting point: from the beginning of time, those wise mentors—who usually appear on screen as old wizards or sages—understood that music was an inextricable part of this journey. For those who possessed this magic, music even provided the road for the trip and the tools for the quest.
to describe the course of a feature film: Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: 25th Anniversary Edition (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 2020), p. xi.
novelists, animators, computer game designers: Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: 25th Anniversary Edition (Studio City, California: Michael Wiese Productions, 2020), p. ix.