Books Every Musician Should Have on Their Bookshelf

Introducing: your summer reading list, classical musician edition!

As a lifelong bookworm, I have never quite outgrown the excitement of creating summer reading lists. I enjoy reading all subjects and genres, but I am especially partial to books about music.

One of the great things about being a musician is being an eternal student – there is no definitive end goal for musicians. Like my idol Leonard Bernstein, my “contact with music is a total embrace.” I immerse myself in learning as much as possible about music theory, history, performances, repertoire, composers, and any other subject I can read about. Knowledge is power, and reading music literature will make you a better musician and spark inspiration and creativity. I finish these books reinvigorated, recharged, and ready to pursue my art.

Here are some of my recommendations for musicians and non-musicians alike. Whether you are a student looking for ways to fill your summer vacation or a seasoned professional searching for your next read, this list is appropriate for all ages. This list covers a variety of topics and is in no particular order.

General Music Books

  • For the End of Time: The Story of the Messiaen Quartet by Rebecca Rischin – This is a detailed account of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which was composed and premiered in a concentration camp. Packed with  information yet easy to read, this book describes the creation and performance of this piece and its musical and historical significance.
  • The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross – There’s a reason this book won so many awards (including being named as one of New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2007). Ross gives us a history of music throughout the 20th century and its cultural relevance and significance. This is a great read for musicians and non-musicians alike!
  • The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein – Leonard Bernstein gave a series of lectures at Harvard on music (sometimes referred to as the Norton Lectures because of his position as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry). Not only was Bernstein a world-famous conductor, composer, and performer, he was also a brilliant pedagogue, as witnessed by his Young People’s Concerts. These lectures were intended for auditors with limited musical experience, and he compares music to other disciplines like poetry and linguistics. (FYI These lectures also exist in video format, but the book is great to review musical examples and concepts.)
  • The Joy of Music by Leonard Bernstein – This collection of conversations highlights the importance of music in society and reminds readers of the joy music can create. Leonard Bernstein is my musical role model, and I find all of his works inspiring and uplifting, and I’m sure you will too.
  • Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Blair Tindall – Not to sound too hipster or anything, but I loved this book long before it was a popular series. This book recounts Tindall’s career as a professional oboist, replete with all the juicy details of life as a classical musician in New York City.
  • Break into the Scene by Seth Hanes – A must-read for anyone who wants a career in music but isn’t quite sure how to make it happen. Hanes gives advice on networking, creating opportunities for yourself, and overcoming other obstacles to achieve your musical dreams.
  • What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland – When one of the greatest American composers of the 20th century writes a book about music, it’s practically required reading for musicians. In this book, Copland asks poignant questions to ensure listeners are listening in a way that they can fully experience music.
  • Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching by Ivan Galamian – This book, written by renowned violinist and teacher Galamian, discusses violin-specific techniques but also musicality and several other topics universal to all musicians. I highly recommend this book for any music educators to understand the success of Galamian’s teaching methods.
  • Violin Playing as I Teach It by Leopold Auer – Written in 1921 by one of the greatest historical violin teachers, this book focuses on methods for teaching and practicing effectively. It offers advice on violin fundamentals, but many of the musical concepts are applicable to all instruments.
  • Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks – Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks examines the correlation between music and the brain in this book of medical diagnoses and scenarios. This book is equally fascinating for musicians and non-musicians alike in examining human nature’s relationship with music.
  • This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin – Music and science collide in this informative examination of how the brain processes and compartmentalizes music. Filled with statistics and scientific studies, Levitin explains why music is so pervasive and important in society.
  • A Dictionary of Music by Christine Ammer – This is a comprehensive dictionary of common musical terminology with historical background and information – a must-have for any musician (or practice room!).
  • The Harvard Dictionary of Music – In this age of technology, it is so easy to Google (or Yahoo, or Bing, or other search engine of your choice) a musical term you don’t know. Having an actual music dictionary is worth it, and you will look very scholarly when your musician friends admire your book collection.

Creativity & Inspiration

These books aren’t specific to music, but they are great for inspiration and creativity.

  • Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert – The title says it all – this book urges everyone to embrace creativity in spite of self-doubt. I highly recommend this book if you are experiencing “musician’s block” and need a dose of inspiration.
  • Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon – According to Kleon, nothing is original. Learn how to collect the influences and ideas of others to create your own art. (This is also a great TED talk if you’d rather listen/watch.)
  • The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey – Don’t let the title fool you – this is a groundbreaking book examining the roles of confidence, focus, and self-doubt in regards to winning. This information is relevant to any field, and is especially pertinent to musicians, whose livelihood is often based on winning auditions.
  • The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey – Inspired by The Inner Game of Tennis, this book is tailored towards musicians and focuses on musicianship, improvisation, and other aspects of music.

Books on my summer reading list

  • Secret Lives of Great Composers: What Your Teachers Never Told You about the World’s Musical Masters by Elizabeth Lunday

  • Chopin in Paris: The Life and Times of the Romantic Composer by Tad Szulc

  • Real Men Don’t Rehearse: Adventures in the Secret World of Professional Orchestras by Justin C. Locke

  • Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music by Angela Myles Beeching

  • Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles & Ted Orland

  • Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury

By no means is this a comprehensive list! I’m always looking for new books to read, and I’d love to hear your recommendations! Leave a comment below or contact me sharing your favorite books or your thoughts on any of the books mentioned above.

P.S. If you’re a clarinetist and looking for clarinet-specific books to read, check out my recommendations here.





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