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Book Review: How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds by John Powell

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Ask the proverbial person on the street what music they like and you will likely get a prompt response with artist names or genres. The response probably won’t be as quick or specific if you ask why they like that music. That’s because our personal taste is influenced by elements we’re not generally aware of — physics, neuroscience and even psychology. Examining all or some of those subjects as they relate to music is something we tend to call “music theory.”

Yet for that average person, music theory can be one of those subjects that causes eyes to glaze over. We love music; we just don’t want to think too hard about it. That’s an obstacle John Powell works hard to overcome with How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond. Although Powell is actually explaining music theory and the science behind it, he does so in a very conversational tone with practical examples and analogies. Readers are not engulfed by academic tones but more in the manner of a one-on-one discussion of what music is — with even a few “I didn’t know that!” moments thrown in. (Famed songwriter Irving Berlin couldn’t write music, so he paid musicians to watch his fingers on the piano and write down what he played.)

As such, How Music Works seems to address a gap in music-related edification of the common reader. It does not look at one or more particular styles of music as one might see in books aimed at what is called music appreciation. At the same time, it is a broader, perhaps more fundamental look at music theory than books like Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music, which looks at how and why music works in the brain. It ends up as a great resource for those who want to gain a basic yet better understanding of something that is important in our lives.

Powell, who has taught both musical acoustics and physics in England, deserves credit for the manner in which he expresses and helps readers understand audio concepts through written words or material that could be easily lost in jargon or theory. For example, he calls the penultimate note in a scale the “almost there” note, almost perfectly capturing the feel and sense of the note when we hear a scale. Similarly, he frequently uses two tunes we all can hum (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”) to help readers translate the written explanation into our own audio comprehension. (The book also includes a CD with examples from the book for those who desire more audio explanation or stimulation.) Most important, he does an excellent job of explaining fundamental yet crucial music elements.

How Music Works is not limited to what Powell calls “the building blocks” of music. He broadens the scope beyond music theory. For example, he explores how and why different instruments make the sounds they do and how they create what we consider musical notes or tones. He even looks at what type of instrument those interested in playing one might want to consider. Still, the focus is on the fundamental elements of music and how and why Western music developed and is created.

My major criticisms of the book may be largely personal. First, part of Powell’s conversational tone is frequent jocularity and humor. Some, though, may find too large a dose or that a large number are distracting or even sophomoric. For example, a discussion about why and how our ears function becomes a bit more banal with the aside that they “are also useful for supporting your sunglasses.” Then there’s occasional lines like, “I have no proof of this, but 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.” Because humor is a question of taste, any nonfiction writer is going to run the risk his or her taste clashes with that of any number of readers.

I freely admit the other criticism may reflect the personal psychic trauma of hours spent as a young piano student practicing with and attempting to memorize a device I felt embodied pure evil, “the circle of fifths.” As How Music Works explores scales and their history and variations, my eyes began to roll back in my head and my brain shut down. It may simply be the damage caused by that experience is too great or that there is no easier or other way to explain scales and their relationships. Yet there one or two other occasions in the book where I had a similar feeling and the length and detail of the scale discussion makes it even more noticeable.

Yet, odd as it may be, the section of the book giving rise to this criticism still reflects the value of Powell’s approach. His basic, core explanation of a scale boils down to a simple line of abbreviations for tones and semitones, two terms far easier to understand than they may sound here. Had my childhood piano teacher ever used that approach, I might actually have grasped what was behind and the importance of the circle of fifths. In fact, Powell earned my esteem in asking “why generations of unhappy children have been forced at knife-point to practice playing scales on their instruments when they could be having much more fun playing real pieces of music” and arguing the rationale for doing so is “feeble” compared to the damage it causes in kids abandoning music.

That may be the strength of How Music Works. It puts what can be difficult concepts in language and examples most anyone could understand. In so doing, Powell gives sustenance to a wide range of people who may be interested in the why and how of music, whether those with no background whatsoever to the many put off by the music pedagogy of their time.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.
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