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Book Review: How Music Works by John Powell

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At 250 pages, John Powell’s new book How Music Works first struck me as a bit slim. The music theory books I have glanced at (and passed over) have generally been thick, 800-word tomes—printed in the tiniest font size imaginable. I really wondered whether there would be much educational value here at all.

Never judge a book by its cover, they say, or in this case size. How Music Works is an exceptionally informative discussion of the hows and whys of music. What’s more, it is written in such a way as to make the concepts and basic facts understandable to just about everyone.

Powell’s writing has a very conversational tone, quite unlike the scholarly one music books typically employ. He also makes his points using the most basic tunes as examples. One of these is the children’s song “Baa Baa Black Sheep;” the other is “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.” It is astonishing how much ground he is able to cover using these basic melodies.

One of the more interesting chapters is titled “Harmony And Cacophony,” in which Powell breaks down exactly why we perceive some music as pleasant, while other types induce anxiety. Another favorite of mine was “The Self-Confident Major and the Emotional Minor.” In this section he explains the differences between major and minor notes, and why minor notes seem “sad.”

As someone who listens to a great deal of music, I never really understood why some CDs sound good to me one day, while I need to hear something different the next. How Music Works lays out the emotional “buttons” different combinations of notes and chords push, and it is a fascinating subject.

There is even a CD included, which further illustrates the points the author makes. I found How Music Works to be a most enjoyable read, with a wealth of information written in a most engaging style. The presentation is clear and logical—even for a layman like myself. Yet it is never pandering, or overly simplified. In short, this is just about the best book on the subject I have come across.

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