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How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond Hardcover – November 3, 2010

4.4 out of 5 stars 84 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this enlightening book, Powell, a British scholar and professor, sets out to explain how we experience music. He selects examples from all manner of disciplines--music composition, simple mathematics, physics, engineering, history--and offers his insights, such as how Bach' s Prelude in C Major is similar to Led Zeppelin' s Stairway to Heaven. In the first half, he defines the elements of music like pitch, frequency, harmony, rhythm, and decibel. Building on this foundation, Powell hits his stride in the book' s second half as he demonstrates, using both classical and pop music, how musicians create sound and how we listen to it. Some of the information can get scientific but Powell conveys the material with enough humor ( I think the decibel was invented in a bar, late one night, by a committee of drunken electrical engineers who wanted to take revenge on the world for their total lack of dancing partners ) and cocktail party facts ( when we listen to Mozart' s music nowadays, we are hearing it a semitone higher than he would have intended ) to keep the book light and fun. Included in the book is a 10-track CD.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"By reading Powell's book we can gain a more solid knowledge of the foundations of music and therefore be better able to appreciate it."―Amanda Mark, New York Journal of Books

"Any readers whose love of music has somehow not led them to explore the technical side before will surely find the result a thoroughly accessible, and occasionally revelatory, primer."―James Walton, The Spectator

"In this distinctive combination of scientific treatise and laugh-out-loud commentary, composer and physicist Powell...has carved out an intriguing niche by using humor to enliven what could have been an otherwise dry introduction to acoustics...readers ... should glean some useful background for music study while simultaneously being entertained."―Barry Zaslow, Library Journal

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (November 3, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780316098304
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316098304
  • ASIN: 0316098302
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #658,571 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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!
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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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