The work, in five volumes plus an index, is an opinionated narrative of music from the 8th century (when music began to be written down) to the present, describing the development of the art form as the result of cultural, economic, social, even nationalistic factors. Taruskin believes that such context dictated compositional choices: in many cases to a far greater extent than previously thought. The history also contains detailed analysis of musical works in illustration of the author's points.
According to a review in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Taruskin's work is "a feast of contrarian ideas. . . [that] aims for nothing less than a revaluation of practically everything you thought you knew about 'classical' music."
For example, the review says, Taruskin claims that at some points in history, people "looked to music to resolve a community's insecurities, as reflected in the German cultural nationalism that gave rise to the cults of Bach and Beethoven. The successful attempt to define the center of international music as Austro-German looms over the latter half of Taruskin's history, as he describes its continuing effect on the perception of 'merely national' composers such as Bart‹k and Janšcek."
Taruskin, a former early-music performer and current professor of musicology at University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Music in the Western World: A History in Documents and Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions. He also writes frequently for periodicals such as the New York Times and the New Republic, as well as for scholarly journals.