The essays have their roots in programme notes Tovey wrote to accompany concerts given by the Reid Orchestra in Edinburgh. Between 1935 and 1939 versions of these essays were published in six volumes as Essays in Musical Analysis. Each volume took a certain genre of orchestral or choral music and is internal arranged by chronological order of composition.
In 1944 a posthumous seventh volume appeared on chamber music. Tovey's A Companion to Beethoven's Piano Sonatas is written in a similar style.
Tovey's analyses are written in fairly wordy prose but avoid the excessive use of technical jargon, meaning they are accesible to the non-specialist reader. Tovey does, however, use letters to stand for recurring themes, and there are many musical examples given in the text. Each piece that Tovey analyses is tackled as it unfolds over time - Tovey said he was writing the analysis as a "naive listener" would hear it.