Listening to music, to paraphrase the Lovin’ Spoonful, can trigger a smile “that won't wipe off your face no matter how hard you try.” That the “magic's in the music and the music's in me” is perfectly captured in the main title of M. Zachary Johnson’s Dancing with the Muses, a rewarding and resourceful book which focuses on “the phenomenon of living linear motion in music.” It offers instruction in melodic coherence, the elements and foundation of melody in interval, scale, and time; the art of mingling lines in “many voices”; and the fundamental makeup of harmony. If any of these lesson plans evoke aridity, abstraction, and academia, or passports to the pedantic perhaps, the subtitled A Historical Approach to Basic Concepts of Music is nevertheless not — despite the connect-the-dots abstracts in the science and math involved — “like trying to tell a stranger 'bout rock and roll.”
No matter how much the method to the Muses madness is like trying to tell a reader the historical approach, Johnson – whose music has been described as “the first serious Romantic music to be produced by a composer who is part, not of the 19th-century past, but of the 21st-century future” – intended to present the essentials and concepts of music chronologically. At the same time, he acknowledges the sheer amount of minutia, the inundation of detail with which the music historian must deal. The game plan? Sift through the facts of history to “find the key turning or milestones … and gain a broad perspective in order to embrace a wide range of relevant, interrelated facts.”
Johnson also takes an interrelated, interdisciplinary approach to his subject with his proposal that his book does not affirm or exemplify a split between musical theory, music history, and the philosophy of music. The three are integrated. Fields of knowledge do not exist as independent aspects of the one reality we perceive.
We see this practice of combining forces played out in the fact-heavy first chapter, “Melodic Shape.” Johnson, though he has spent many years teaching pre-college students, and is on the faculty at Hofstra University and the Preparatory Division of Mannes College the New School for Music in New York City, brings his systematic syllabus-minded skills to the fore for a reason: The purpose is not to overwhelm or intimidate, but rather to afford an all-embracing overview. “In order,” Johnson puts it, “to provide the overall framework, [a] holistic immersion comes first.”
So cue the dancing muses as we plunge into that deep end of the first paragraph of the first chapter – when “”we have our first meaningful experience of [music] and our first strong response to it,” which becomes that magic in the... “melody and feeling.” Johnson builds on the subject of emotion in music, within the historic structure, as evoked by further complexities and richness, patterns and pitches, lines, and shapes. As the muses fade, Johnson spends – as a good way to study line shape — a couple paragraphs with the old method of writing a “cantus firmus or fixed voice,” looking at the process of composing in both analytical and creative terms, and breaking out the graphic visual aids in scale, staff, notes and such, for some advanced fine-tuning.