Book review: Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music by Ben Ratliff

How do you listen to your music?

Tuesday, 23rd February 2016, 10:00 am

The wax cylinder is long consigned to history, so we’ll take that as a no-no. How about a once-unfashionable format currently enjoying something of a renaissance – vinyl – but on high quality, highly expensive 180gms naturally?

Or maybe on C90 cassette, assuming you still have a player stashed away somewhere to spool the magnetic tape. Perhaps on a shiny drink mat Compact Disc, which we are already being told has had its day, or by internet download in mp3 file format.

Chances are though you might be right on trend, joining the ever-growing army of ‘virtual’ listeners who access their sounds directly through YouTube, Spotify or any number of emerging streaming channels currently congregating in ‘the cloud.’

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Ben Ratliff, a music critic on the New York Times, suggests the most significant revolution in the recent history of music has to do with the listener rather than the creator of those sounds we wrap around ourselves.Now we can hear almost everything, almost wherever we are, and often for free – if you know exactly where to look or, perhaps more accurately, to listen.

No longer having to be tied to either side of an LP or cassette’s contents or even the 80+ minutes capacity of a CD brings the added freedom of being able to organise our own playlists.

And Ratliff encourages us to exploit this flexibility by venturing outside our tried and trusted comfort zones to navigate through musical genres that might not be so familiar. Experience and experiment with – as the book title says – every song ever.

So instead of areas devoted solely to rock, jazz, soul, hip-hop, heavy metal, or any obvious genre you care to name, the book melds these together, giving readers plenty of pointers as to how they should go about listening.

You will find chapters headed Loudness, Speed, Slowness, Virtuosity, Density, Closeness, Silence (yes, silence!) and 13 more that cut across the work of many artists, whether music icons and chart names or performers unknown to most, but ready and waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by a wider audience.

He has even produced playlists to illustrate each of his concepts, where you will find – in one case – the likes of Aztec Camera, The Who, Katrina and the Waves and the Modern Jazz

Quartet lining up alongside Thelonious Monk, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, The Coasters and Slint, their highlighted selections, dating from 1947 to 1991. But all will help you discover the ‘delights’ of what Ratcliff dubs ‘the Single Note.’

The book will not appeal to every music fan, especially those who are happy to stick with what they know and let the clouds roll by.

Yet with technology’s big beat breakthrough, making so much music readily available, it is tempting to agree when Ratliff suggests we owe it to ourselves to try to listen ever more to even more.

And on that note....

(Allen Lane, hardback, £20)