I thought I’d have a set of posts ready to do about composers when I settled down with “The New Harvard Dictionary of Music.” Hey, I even had portraits of my favorites lined up — Tchaikovsky made it here, and Beethoven and Handel were waiting in my files.
But there’s only one problem: The dictionary is of music, not of biography. There are entries for compositions, but not for composers.
It just goes to show that it’s worth knowing what’s in a reference book. I knew from discussions with Dad that this would solve questions about music; I should have noticed that when a question came up about a composer, we’d go for a biography rather than this dictionary.
I suppose search engines are threatening any sorts of dictionaries, but I still enjoy them precisely because of their limits and the way they’re sorted. If I were to type the name of a composer into my closest search engine, I might get millions of “answers” — without much regard to my question about that composer. Now that I’m more familiar with the music dictionary, I know that I can come up with all sorts of answers about music itself. For biographies, it’s off to the library (at least in the case of composers).
Dictionaries and other reference books are more controlled; the title, from Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language, reveals what’s inside and how it’s sorted.
I suppose there’s a balance somewhere between search engines and reference books. Most days, I’d rather not lose either one.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.
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Filed under: Music and language