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69 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a must read book for anyone who loves music
I have always had an aptitude for and interest in science. I am a medical student and am interested in the human brain and how we as humans see the world and interact with our environment.

One thing that I love perhaps as much as science is music. I find it possibly the single best cure for emotional disturbance, especially stress of any kind and have often...
Published on October 29, 2010 by Karina B

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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent, readable, great for some things but MISLEADING regarding tuning
This is a great accessible book in many ways. Its discussion of instrument acoustics is very clear. With some changes, I would have given it five stars. Unfortunately, the bias about equal temperament is really problematic. Most readers are not equipped to question any of his claims, so it really is unfortunate that Powell actually teaches some incorrect things. His...
Published on June 6, 2011 by Aaron Wolf


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69 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a must read book for anyone who loves music, October 29, 2010
I have always had an aptitude for and interest in science. I am a medical student and am interested in the human brain and how we as humans see the world and interact with our environment.

One thing that I love perhaps as much as science is music. I find it possibly the single best cure for emotional disturbance, especially stress of any kind and have often wondered why this is?

I have noticed that music can have a profound affect on mood and state of mind. Sometimes it brings about nostalgia attached to a memory that I doubt I would remember without the auditory cue. Sometimes it makes me so happy that I walk down the street with my headphones in my ears grinning at passers by, and sometimes it simply brings tears to my eyes. It is certainly a very emotive tool and science in its own right.

When I discovered the book `How Music Works' by John Powell I thought to myself `this might be worth a read!' I certainly was not wrong.

This book does what it says on the tin really. The author uses a scientific approach to explain exactly how music works, without isolating the lay person. He uses examples and analogies we can all relate to, to explain concepts in a logical and understandable manner without compromising on detail and depth of explanation, which in my humble opinion is quite a skill.

The style of writing is witty and light hearted so this book makes for an entertaining as well as interesting and informative read. Several times I found myself subject to a few funny looks on the tube as I laughed out loud whilst reading the book on my daily commute. I also found my self thinking `ok so now I get it!' and listening to music between chapters to put my new found knowledge to the test and matching the newly found concepts in the book to the notes, chords, scales and harmonies I was listening to!

The book covers all aspects of music and the way that it works, including explanations about different instruments and how they create the sound that they do, harmony, scales, the difference between notes and noise, and yes there is physics behind why these differ, why music evokes different emotional responses, rhythm, perfect pitch... and so on! Basically everything you could possibly want to know about the in's and out's of this thing we call music.

Chapter 2 explains what perfect pitch is and also provides the reader with a quick and easy way of assessing whether they themselves have perfect pitch. It's great! You never know, you could have what it takes to be the next Madonna or Michael Jackson.

Chapter 6, how loud is loud is interesting. It explains the system that we have come up with over the years for measuring loudness which is more complicated than you may first think. It also explains why ten instruments sounds only twice as loud as one and why one hundred instruments only sounds four times as loud as one. Yes that's right, it's true. We don't like that though do we? It doesn't make sense. Well as the author correctly points out, six smelly socks aren't six times as smelly as one, and ten salted peanuts in your mouth aren't five times as salty as two (even though you have five times as much salt on your tongue.) After reading this chapter you will see why simply adding more instruments to existing instruments does not add loudness proportionately. The explanation for this involves both the way that sound waves join together as well as why our brains don't add up sounds properly. This, interestingly, relates to survival the avoidance of danger. Our brain will choose what it pays attention to based on how threatening it assesses the noise to be.

This book is well written, well illustrated, entertaining and informative. I whole heartedly recommend it as an excellent read for anyone - whether you're a musician or scientist or both or even if you're neither and just love a good tune! Enjoy.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly fascinating! (And what to know BEFORE studying music theory), March 17, 2011
Disclaimer: I have no musical talent, either real or imagined.

I have read books on music theory, and I always found them lacking. WHY do we have an octave (octave=eight) that contains twelve tones? WHY are there whole steps between all notes except for B & C and E & F? WHY do we pick out, seemingly arbitrarily, seven of the twelve tones in an octave and call them a scale? `How Music Works' answers those questions, even though I never expected it to. For the first time, music theory begins to make sense! It is not enough for me to know something IS, I want to know WHY. Now I do. If that were the sole contents of the book, it would be worth what I paid for it at the local bookstore. But `How Music Works' contains much, much more.

`How Music Works' provides a scientific definition of what music is, in very understandable terms. The author describes how a string produces sound, and how we generally are listening to furniture with most stringed instruments. He explains why different instruments produce different voices at the same tone and how various instruments physically produce their sounds. This is why I purchased the book. If this were the sole content of the book, it would be worth the retail price I paid for it. But `How Music Works' contains much, much more.

`How Music Works' also delves into the tricky phenomenon of how we humans perceive sound, both from the standpoint of the sound itself, and of our hearing system. Here is also where the science of Western music is so elegantly described in easy to understand terms. Ever wonder WHY if a major scale and a natural minor scale (e.g. C Major and A minor) contain exactly the same notes, WHY they sound so different? The answer is in `How Music Works.' I've never seen that anywhere else, particularly not In music theory books.

`How Music Works' then describes musical notation, and lots of other stuff, including analog and digital recordings, CDs and MP3s, and more. The book is chock full of anecdotal, historical, and scientific tidbits that are in and of themselves astounding; I kept interrupting my wife--who was also reading--and saying, "Let me read this to you!" Not only is the book a page turner that is difficult to put down--yes, it is that engrossing--but it is full of humorous remarks that are very natural, unlike the sometimes strained humor of a certain series of books for dummies. I laughed out loud often while reading `How Music Works'.

After reading this book, I am so elated with my new understanding of music that I am delving into music theory again (now that I understand the WHY behind what IS), and I am breaking out my chromatic harmonica again. I also ordered a melodica (a.k.a. keyboard harmonica) to better play simultaneous notes and see the relationship of music on a keyboard. `How Music Works' convinced me that anyone can successfully make music with practice. That alone was worth the price of the book.

Did I mention the CD? No? That's because I haven't listened to it yet. I love to read, but I'm not good with recordings so much. Here is what is on the CD: 1) How to get different sounds from a guitar string. 2) Can you guess what this instrument is? 3) Why some notes clash and others get along together. 4) Different ways to accompany a tune. 5) Ancient and modern scales. 6) 3000-year-old music--ancient harp tuning. 7) The horrible out-of-tune bamboo whistle. 8) Confident majors and emotional minors. 9) How to bring tears to the eyes of the audience. 10)The magnificent drinking straw oboe. All of these things are well described in the text; the CD is for those who like to hear what is described. (I'm more visual than auditory.)

All in all, I highly recommend this book (and CD). It is easily worth the full retail price many times over. It is such a bargain at the Amazon price that I cannot think of anyone who shouldn't read it and enjoy it. Anyone with a passing interest in music or a passing interest in physics, or a passing interest in mathematics will enjoy it--and it isn't necessary to know anything about any of those disciplines to enjoy it. This one is well worth your time. Buy it. Read it. You will not regret it.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book for musicians and scientists alike, October 27, 2010
As a scientist and educationalist ( and amateur guitarist) I found this book both useful for background information and also satisfying simply as a good entertaining read.
I like the writing style which leads me gently through the musical and scientific concepts and deposits me at the end of each chapter better informed and eager to put my new found insights into practice.
The videos which accompany this book are also fun and informative.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent, readable, great for some things but MISLEADING regarding tuning, June 6, 2011
By 
Aaron Wolf (Ann Arbor, MI United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This is a great accessible book in many ways. Its discussion of instrument acoustics is very clear. With some changes, I would have given it five stars. Unfortunately, the bias about equal temperament is really problematic. Most readers are not equipped to question any of his claims, so it really is unfortunate that Powell actually teaches some incorrect things. His explanation of tuning the pentatonic and major and minor scales is simplistic and wrong.

He uses simple ratios to point out how basic the scales are, but he explains how to get to those ratios in ways that actually have basic mathematical errors. If you use his tuning methods, you will end up at a different tuning than he says you will because his math is simply incorrect. He ignores the details of this because he clearly thought it was just too complex for his intended readers. He appears to be convinced that the compromised equal tempered tuning is the be-all end-all solution for music.
Other ideas are culturally-biased as well. He claims that the goal overall is to be able to transpose and modulate songs among different keys... but most music in most cultures in most of history doesn't care about that. He inserted that goal because it makes his explanation much simpler to claim that ancient Greeks cared about modulation and transposition, even though there's no reason to believe that.

But many sections of this book are superb, and overall it is a worthwhile read (though it's the sort of thing you should be happy getting from your local library, rather than buying it)

I have a much more detailed and nuanced review of this book at my website wolftune.com
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended, November 13, 2010
As a music-lover with no background in science, I found this book extremely well-written and easy to read... and, of course, very enjoyable. Highly recommended.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Review Organized By Reader Type, April 6, 2011
By 
Peter Baum (Onset, MA USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
I like this book very much and would like to see it incorporated into high school and college curricula. Realistically, however, no book will be enjoyed by everyone. Also, because the book will appeal to people with a wide range of musical and analytic interests and experience, I have separated my recommendations according to reader type.

Readers who like music but do not like science or analysis:

This isn't the book for you. There is very little in this book that will increase the pleasure of listening to music. The sole exception might be the suggestion to occasionally focus on a single instrument within a complex piece that involves many instruments. There is material in the book that will probably interest you, but finding it amongst the science and analysis will probably not be worth it to you.

Readers who don't have much music training but do have an interest in science, analysis, psychology, and history:

You are sure to enjoy this book. One warning, however - The full title may mislead some people into thinking that the book will explain why a sound is experienced as beautiful. The book does not provide such an explanation. Rather it describes the physical characteristics of sounds we usually experience as beautiful. The physical characteristics of sound must in some way be related to our cognitive and emotional experience, but science has yet to fully elucidate the precise cause and effect.

Readers who hate mathematics: only the mathematics found in elementary school is used in the book.

Experienced musicians who have at least a mild interest in science, analysis, psychology, and history:

You will enjoy the book and almost certainly discover new technical information, some of which is based on the author's own scientific research. Skim the explanations that you are familiar with. Teachers will enjoy the presentation of concepts because of their innovation and clarity and probably will be able to put these ideas to good use.

Readers who love music and are very comfortable with technical science and analysis.

You will probably love the book but hope for a sequel that is more technical.

Notes to readers who have finished the book:

The book will probably mislead people into thinking that Western scales and especially the usual pentatonic scale are inevitable. In fact, there is a great deal of variation as an analysis of non-Western music will demonstrate. Nevertheless, most of the content of the book is accurate and interesting.

I question the claim on page 231 that the reason singing in a shower sounds good is because of the hard reflective surfaces. I believe that the resonance of the space is a related factor that is at least as important.

Index error - The index erroneously lists the reference "Berlin, Irving, 172" when, in fact, the reference is on page 170.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BookHounds [...], November 7, 2010
By 
This book is so appealing on so many different levels. A lot of times, any book that deals with technical subjects become dry and boring. How Music Works is easy to read and very enjoyable. There is so much wonderful snarky, English humor that you don't even realize you are learning something. Even if you are a casual fan of music, you will find some eye opening facts in here, such as why you hear those discordant sounds at the beginning of an orchestral concert. They are tuning all of the instruments to the same key!

I have spent most of my life around musicians and I don't think even they could explain some of the things in this book. There are wonderful illustration as well as a lot of interesting facts. I mean, how else could you learn the true meaning of decibels or how loud is too loud? This would make an excellent gift for anyone who love music or thrives on trivia.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More technical than expected, March 19, 2011
By 
I have a background in music (took classical piano lessons for 13 years, 9 years of organized school music programs), yet I found this book to be a little too technical. The premise was it is written for anyone with an interest in music, even a casual interest in current pop music, but no experience playing. This would definately be over their head.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining !, January 14, 2011
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If you want to know about the way sounds are made into music, this book will show you how. You will also learn about the way the various instruments produce their individual sounds; what harmony is; what the difference between a note and a sound is, etc.
There are no mathematical formulas in this book- a rarity these days with similar books. There are interesting chapters on major and minor keys and the way they might affect our mood.
However, there is one point made where I beg to differ. Powell writes (on page 203) that "playing a musical instrument is just a skill to be learned like any other". I do not agree at all. Unfortunately, if you weren't born with a talent for music, if you do not have a musical ear, tens of years of practice will not suffice. This is one of those cases in which life is black or white.
But overall, this highly entertaining book will open your eyes to things you supposed you knew, whether you are an amateur or a professional player. For me, as an unprofessional pianist, this book will enhance the pleasure I derive from Beethoven and his other genius friends.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars still not appealing enough to the layperson, January 13, 2013
By 
Urs (Detroit, MI) - See all my reviews
I have studied music through performance (from piano, to voice, to saxophone, to Javanese gamelan...), music theory, music history, Sociology of Music, and even Physics of Music from elementary school to graduate school. As a result, I have read many and varied books about music. This book was by far one of the more enjoyable, engaging, and informative reads compared to others that I have read. Even I learned a few things in this book.

The book is written in everyday language so that the least informed about music can understand. Information is presented in small sectional chunks within the chapters that are easy to digest. There are little exercises to try throughout to illustrate the concepts and to keep the reader engaged. There is also an audio CD with examples to enhance the experience, as well. The author also peppers humor throughout, which, although mostly corny, helps lighten the material.

Nevertheless, this book fell short of my expectation of it being a book that I can hand to anyone to read and enjoy. One has to have a certain level and type of interest to get through this book, and I truly doubt that the average music lover has this level of interest or cares enough. There were times when even I would have rather been listening to or making music than reading the book. I cannot think of anyone that I know that would read this book all the way through without it being a task for them. However, if you do have that level and type of curiosity, then this is a good read.

Note: This review as originally posted on Goodreads.com
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How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond
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