8 BBC radio docs that will change the way you listen to music

Music is such an expressive form it's easy to forget there's a world of context that can't always be gained just from listening to what is going on. In Radio 4's archive of Seriously... documentaries, there is ample proof that a little fresh perspective can entirely alter the way listeners experience even the most familiar of tunes.

Here are eight examples; eight lessons we can learn from the stories surrounding music and how it is made, from new instruments to an appreciation of the people who write the words we all sing along to.

1. Shredding isn't just showing off

In Fast and Furioso, conductor Rainer Hersch meets virtuoso musicians from all walks of musical life to ask whether there's a corollary between the ability to play extremely complicated pieces at high speed - anything from Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee to a speed metal version of Beethoven's 5th by The Great Kat condensed into 74 seconds - and the requirement for music to be a conduit for emotions.

The short answer appears to be that there is, and that a sense of awe at the astonishing abilities of these musicians becomes an integral part of the audience's emotional reaction to their performances.

2. Music doesn't have to last forever

For In the Moment, comedian Stewart Lee interviewed musicians who specialise in free improvisation - a performance discipline which creates musical order out of everyday chaos, or takes the constrictive order of music and makes it unfettered and chaotic. Or both. It could be a response to the disorder of the Second World War, it could be a trust exercise between like-minded musicians, but it's never the same thing twice.

Speaking to key members of London's free improvisation scene - including Evan Parker, Maggie Nicols, Sarah Gail Brand, Steve Noble and John Edwards - he sets out to find out what it's like to stand on a stage without the first clue as to what will happen, how it will start, how it will progress, and how it will end.

3. Harmonicas don't suck

The harmonica is the kind of instrument that people in poverty can make good use of. Small, portable and cheap, it's no coincidence that it started as a humble child's toy - produced in Germany to replicate the hugely popular sound of the accordion - and became the iconic mouthpiece of the Mississippi Delta blues, and onwards to full electric life in Chicago.

In Suck It and See, songwriter Amy Wadge investigates the history of the instrument, starting in Vienna and moving across the Atlantic with German settlers to the USA, who were fleeing poverty. Players soon began to discover a whole new expressive range to the instrument if notes were sucked instead of blown. She also discovers where the instrument is heading next, with the help of Canadian beatboxer Son of Dave.

4. New instrument = new music

The Hang (or Hang Drum) is the 21st century's first new instrument, and it has provided composers and players with a new sonic palate to play with. The sound is like a deeply resonant steel drum, with a bit of Indonesian gamelan in the choice of notes available. It is both familiar and warm, and thrillingly mysterious at the same time.

In The Hang Drum Phenomenon, Dame Evelyn Glennie investigates the impact of a new instrument - which has developed a strong worldwide following, including its own festival - on the making of music. There are Hang apps for smartphones, but also a strong cult of ownership around each instrument, made more intense now that the makers, PANArt, have elected to stop making them. Second-hand instruments can reach over $10,000 on eBay.

5. A sense of humour is a valid compositional asset

One of the qualities that is often overlooked in the retelling of the story of The Beatles is their shared love of comedy. It's what first melted the ice between them and their producer George Martin (he impressed them by revealing he had worked with The Goons), and a good many of their songs incorporate Goonish surrealism and humour.

It's something that was very much in the air in the 1960s, with bands such as The Alberts, The Scaffold and the Bonzo Dog Band making modern fun out of 1920s jazz, music hall and dada-ish art statements. Anarchy Must Be Organised is a history of the Bonzos (who appeared in the Beatles movie Magical Mystery Tour) as told by the band, interviewed by Adrian Edmonson, and it puts them back in their rightful place as the precursors of both Monty Python's Flying Circus and the innate comedy within British psychedelia.

6. Even the most iconic music has untold stories

It would be remarkable enough to find a single figure that links music from The Goons, Hancock's Half Hour, Dynasty, Wonder Woman and Star Wars, but the story of Angela Morley throws a fascinating new light upon these iconic musical themes.

She was born Wally Stott, and had forged a hugely successful career as the musical director for Shirley Bassey and working with Spike Milligan and Tony Hancock. Then, in 1972, Wally made the transition to Angela, causing a tabloid scandal. But she rode it out, going on to compose scores for hit movies such as Watership Down, and assisting John Williams with his work on E.T., Superman and the Star Wars movies.

In Musical Variations: The Life of Angela Morley, Stuart Barr tells her story, examines her key skills as an arranger and asks whether the upheavals of her life can be detected within her work.

7. Classical music is for everyone (or is it?)

In Black, White and Beethoven, Joseph Harker - who immediately identifies himself as a black, northern classical music fan - asks why, when Britain's music scene is a rich, multi-cultural feast that draws on talent from all corners of society, the performers, composers, teachers and institutions around classical music remain resolutely, predominantly white.

He also questions why this might be an important issue to address - whether classical music acts like an exclusive club; whether there's an untapped resource for orchestras; or a simple lack of appreciation for classical music in black and minority ethnic families across Britain and Europe. And he talks to classical musicians from diverse backgrounds, including Chi-chi Nwanoku and members of her Chineke! Orchestra, Europe's first professional Black and Minority Ethnic orchestra.

8. Lyrics are serious literature

In The Art of the Lyricist, Clarke Peters explores the career and legacy of Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the lyrics to My Fair Lady, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and investigates the art of lyricists in general using excerpts from the BBC archive.

It's a compelling 60-minute sweep through some of the most articulate songs in music, celebrating the art of a finely turned phrase working alongside a perfect melody, with contributors including Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein and even the great P.G. Wodehouse.

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