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Nicholas Cook's A Guide to Musical Analysis: An Essential Resource for Music Students and Scholars

A Guide to Musical Analysis by Nicholas Cook: A Review

If you are a music student or scholar who wants to learn more about musical analysis, you might be interested in reading A Guide to Musical Analysis by Nicholas Cook. This book is a comprehensive and practical introduction to the most important analytical methods used in musicology. It explores how different analytical procedures suit different types of music and how they can help us understand and appreciate musical masterpieces. In this article, I will review the book and discuss its main contents, questions, strengths and weaknesses.


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The main analytical methods explained in the book

The book consists of six chapters that cover five major analytical methods: traditional methods, Schenkerian analysis, psychological approaches, formal approaches and techniques of comparative analysis. Each chapter explains the basic concepts and principles of each method, illustrates them with examples from various musical genres and periods, and evaluates their advantages and limitations.

Traditional methods of analysis

The first chapter introduces the traditional methods of analysis that focus on harmony, melody, counterpoint and form. These methods are based on the common practice tonal system that dominated Western music from the 17th to the 19th centuries. They involve identifying chords and their functions, labeling melodic intervals and motives, tracing contrapuntal lines and patterns, and outlining formal structures and sections. These methods are useful for describing the surface features and organization of tonal music, but they may not capture its deeper meaning or expression.

Schenkerian analysis

The second chapter presents Schenkerian analysis, which is a method that reveals the underlying structure and coherence of tonal music. It is based on the theory of Heinrich Schenker, who argued that all tonal music can be reduced to a simple harmonic and melodic framework called the Ursatz. Schenkerian analysis involves identifying the levels of musical structure, from the foreground (the actual notes and chords) to the background (the Ursatz), and showing how they are related by prolongation, voice leading and reduction. Schenkerian analysis is useful for demonstrating the unity and continuity of tonal music, but it may not account for its diversity and complexity.

Psychological approaches to analysis

The third chapter explores the psychological approaches to analysis, which are methods that explain how music affects our perception, cognition and emotion. They are based on the theories of Leonard Meyer, who proposed that music creates and satisfies expectations by implication and realization. Psychological approaches involve identifying the musical elements that create expectations, such as pitch, rhythm, harmony, timbre and texture, and analyzing how they are fulfilled or denied by the musical events. Psychological approaches are useful for understanding the expressive and affective aspects of music, but they may not reflect its objective and structural aspects.

Formal approaches to analysis

The fourth chapter examines the formal approaches to analysis, which are methods that deal with music that is not based on the common practice tonal system, such as atonal, serial and post-tonal music. They involve applying mathematical and logical tools, such as set theory, serialism and transformational theory, to analyze the pitch organization and manipulation of non-tonal music. Formal approaches involve identifying the pitch class sets (collections of pitches) and their operations (such as transposition, inversion and complementation), or the twelve-tone rows (ordered sequences of pitches) and their matrices (tables that show all possible permutations), or the transformations (functions that map one musical object to another) and their networks (diagrams that show all possible connections). Formal approaches are useful for revealing the order and consistency of non-tonal music, but they may not convey its meaning or significance.

Techniques of comparative analysis

The fifth chapter discusses the techniques of comparative analysis, which are methods that compare and contrast different musical works or styles. They involve using stylistic analysis, which identifies the characteristic features and norms of a musical style, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, instrumentation and form, or intertextual analysis, which examines the relationships between musical works that share common elements or references, such as quotation, allusion, parody or homage. Comparative analysis is useful for situating music in its historical and cultural context, but it may not appreciate its individuality or originality.

The main questions and challenges raised by the book

The book also raises some important questions and challenges that relate to the nature and purpose of musical analysis. These questions include:

What does musical analysis tell us?

The sixth chapter addresses this question by exploring the relationship between analysis and interpretation, performance and criticism. It argues that analysis is not an end in itself, but a means to an end: to understand and communicate what music means and how it works. Analysis can inform interpretation by providing evidence and arguments for different readings or perspectives on a musical work. Analysis can also inform performance by suggesting how to play or sing a musical work in terms of tempo, dynamics, articulation or expression. Analysis can also inform criticism by evaluating the quality or value of a musical work in terms of originality, coherence, complexity or beauty.

How to apply musical analysis to different types of music?

The book also addresses this question by providing worked examples of analysis for different types of music in the last three chapters. These examples include classical music in sonata form (such as Mozart's Piano Sonata in C major K. 545), romantic music with chromatic harmony (such as Chopin's Prelude in E minor Op. 28 No. 4), modern music with complex rhythms (such as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring), popular music with simple forms (such as The Beatles' Yesterday), jazz music with improvisation (such as Miles Davis' So What), world music with exotic scales (such as Ravi Shankar's Raga Jog) and electronic music with sound synthesis (such as Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge). These examples show how different analytical methods can be applied to different types of music, but also how they may encounter problems or limitations when dealing with unfamiliar or unconventional musical features.

The main strengths and weaknesses of the book

The book has many strengths and weaknesses that can be summarized as follows:


  • ```html The book covers a wide range of musical examples from different genres and periods, from classical to jazz, from Bach to The Beatles.

  • The book offers a balanced and objective perspective on different analytical methods, acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses without favoring one over another.


  • The book lacks depth and detail in some sections, especially in the chapters on psychological and formal approaches, which are too brief and superficial.

  • The book omits or neglects some important topics or methods that are relevant for musical analysis, such as historical analysis, cultural analysis, feminist analysis or postmodern analysis.

  • The book contains some inconsistency or contradiction in some arguments or claims, such as the role of the analyst's subjectivity, the validity of multiple interpretations or the value of musical analysis.


In conclusion, A Guide to Musical Analysis by Nicholas Cook is a useful and informative book for anyone who wants to learn more about musical analysis. It explains the main analytical methods in a clear and accessible way, illustrates them with diverse and interesting musical examples, and evaluates them with balance and objectivity. However, the book also has some weaknesses that may limit its scope and effectiveness. It lacks depth and detail in some sections, omits or neglects some important topics or methods, and contains some inconsistency or contradiction in some arguments or claims. Therefore, I would recommend this book as a general introduction to musical analysis, but not as a comprehensive or authoritative guide. For further reading or research on musical analysis, I would suggest consulting other books or articles that deal with specific topics or methods in more depth and detail.


  • What is the main purpose of musical analysis?

Musical analysis is the process of examining and explaining how music works and what it means. It can help us understand and appreciate musical masterpieces, inform our interpretation and performance of music, and evaluate the quality or value of music.

  • What are the main analytical methods used in musicology?

There are many analytical methods used in musicology, but some of the most common ones are: traditional methods (harmony, melody, counterpoint, form), Schenkerian analysis (levels, prolongation, reduction), psychological approaches (expectation, implication, realization), formal approaches (set theory, serialism, transformational theory), and techniques of comparative analysis (style analysis, intertextuality).

  • How to choose an appropriate analytical method for a musical work?

There is no definitive answer to this question, as different analytical methods may suit different types of music or different analytical goals. However, some criteria that may help us choose an appropriate analytical method are: the genre and period of the music, the structure and style of the music, the expressive and affective aspects of the music, the historical and cultural context of the music, and the personal preference and purpose of the analyst.

  • What are some of the advantages and limitations of musical analysis?

Musical analysis has many advantages and limitations that depend on the method used and the perspective adopted. Some of the advantages are: it can reveal the unity and coherence of musical structure, it can explain the expressive and affective effects of musical elements, it can compare and contrast different musical works or styles, it can communicate our understanding and appreciation of music to others. Some of the limitations are: it may not capture the diversity and complexity of musical meaning or expression, it may not reflect the objective and structural aspects of music, it may encounter problems or difficulties when dealing with unfamiliar or unconventional musical features.

  • What are some of the sources or references for further reading or research on musical analysis?

There are many sources or references for further reading or research on musical analysis. Some examples are: An Introduction to Music Analysis by Ian Bent (1987), Analyzing Music: An Introduction to Musical Structure by Nicholas Cook (1990), Analyzing Popular Music edited by Allan F. Moore (2003), The Oxford Handbook of Music Analysis edited by Steven Rings and Christopher Hasty (2018), and Music Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal published by Wiley.



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