How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond
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How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond

3.84 of 5 stars 3.84  ·  rating details  ·  863 ratings  ·  96 reviews
What makes a musical note different from any other sound? How can you tell if you have perfect pitch? Why do 10 violins sound only twice as loud as one? Do your Bob Dylan albums sound better on CD or vinyl? John Powell, a scientist and musician, answers these questions and many more in HOW MUSIC WORKS, an intriguing and original guide to acoustics. In a clear, accessible,...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published November 3rd 2010 by Little, Brown and Company (first published January 1st 2010)
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Stuart
This is a fun book by a geeky professor type who isn't afraid to be silly to get his points across. I have a background in both music and physics, and if I were to write a book on this topic, I'd be hard pressed to be as engaging as Dr. Powell. I even learned a few things myself while reading this thing even though it's primarily designed for those not technically inclined.

How Music Works reads like a semester long course in the physics of music for non-scientists. It comes with a CD so you can...more
Natalie
Jan 18, 2011 Natalie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: music lovers, musicians, music students, music teachers, concert goers, theater lovers, film buffs
Every so often I come across a book that I can imagine giving as a gift to at least half the people I know. The last one was Yellowrocket, the one before that was Earth. My 2010/2011 choice is: How Music Works

Not just for music geeks:

Is How Music Works about music or physics?
Is it for readers who want to better understand music as they are listening?
Is this book for percussionists? for those who play wind instruments? For those who play guitar? Piano?
For those who play their car stereos as lo...more
Jill
You know that physics teacher you had that one time? That really dorky British guy with the seriously twisted sense of dry humor, left-field analogies that actually helped you understand, and killer taste in music? Well, guess what? He wrote a book! And it's this one! Yeah!

Of course I didn't have John Powell as a physics professor, but oh my god, I wish I had. This guy has written one of the most entertaining, comprehensible, and fun non-fiction primers I've ever encountered. As a reference for...more
Linda Robinson
Started out loving this book, and ended loving it more. I play a couple of instruments (played is more accurate) and my father made his living at it for most of my childhood, so all of us took up an instrument. I'm not going to tell my brothers they played some of the hardest instruments to learn. I kept at it and thus was exposed to music theory, music appreciation and the lexicon of the infrastructure and guts of musicology, but until "How Music Works" the workings were jumbled bits of informa...more
Maura
as someone who's played and sung a lot of music over the years, but who hasn't studied either the physics of music or music theory, this was a great book for organizing the bits and pieces I've picked up over the years and adding in a few things I didn't know for good measure. His explanations are really clear -- and I think that someone who didn't have much a musical background beyond listening to the radio would still be able to follow everything. The CD that comes with the book is short but r...more
Urs
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 in...more
Mary (BookHounds)
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 instr...more
Sps
Oct 06, 2012 Sps rated it 3 of 5 stars
Shelves: 700s
Very clear explanations of many things that have been frustratingly unclear to me for years. Mr. Powell is both a musician and a physicist, so he can say with authority what's happening on a physical level while drawing on examples of instruments, composition techniques, or musical pieces to make his point. Concise explanations of timbre, chords, scales, keys, resonance, and many other confusing concepts. There are a few too corny gags for my liking--these are always best as a garnish rather tha...more
Bennet
A fun book and helpful to myself, a nonmusician who deeply appreciates music. It puts some basics in perspective, such as: "It is movement that infuses a song with life. It's the movement from key to key which provides a change in mood. The keys themselves don't have moods of their own." And a good ear for such shifts can be helpful on many levels, as well as enhancing one's listening experience. Made me think more fully about music as integral to life, and in a variety of contexts.

As fun and in...more
William Blair
Feb 20, 2011 William Blair rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: nobody whatsoever
It's been a LONG time since I studied music theory, or history, or even played "one of the most difficult instruments to learn" (according to this author). By way of disclosure, I'm not a "trained musician" but I was pretty good: first chair in every band/orchestra I played in. And I'm one of those (probably rare) types that likes to follow a conductor's score while I listen to "classical" music. So it was with interest that I grabbed onto this book, thinking I would learn something new, if not...more
Zach
John Powell is a physicist who happens to be a musician. Or maybe it's the other way around. In this book, he meanders through some rudimentary concepts of music that might be useful for the reader who loves music but isn’t going to be taking the time to take formal training.

I suppose the purpose of this book is teach your reader something they didn’t know. In my case, I always realized that notes are really composed of a central frequency and its harmonics. But if you remove the first harmonic,...more
Ryan
This book looks at several questions about music that any curious person has probably thought to himself, and does it in a way that requires no special background in music or science. Unfortunately as someone with a background in both, I found this book a little long winded. Powell likes to make cute jokes about everything, but mostly self-deprecating jokes about scientists. They aren't bad, but literally happen almost every page, and so tend to feel like they are dragging the book out.

Also incl...more
Sher
This book is so entertaining! It is funny and clever and very enlightening. I enjoyed almost all of it. It is written for non-musicians in an effort to help them understand what music is all about. The author does a great job of hitting so many aspects of music, but for me, a professional musician, it was a little elementary. With that said, I did learn a few things that I can use in my classroom, and that made it all worth it. I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions. I can recomme...more
Connie Mayo
Some really interesting stuff in here, such as why we have octaves and why they have 12 keys and why some tones sound good together and others awful. My two knocks against this book are 1) I wasn't overly fond of the interspersed jokes - I'm all for lightening up the material, but perhaps my complaint is that the jokes weren't that good! and 2) some of the info about scales and keys in the latter half of the book was just too basic and repetative. But it's a unique book that has interesting thin...more
Heather Pagano
A lucid and engaging explanation of how the physics of sound production influence music theory. I attended music conservatory and still gained a much better understanding of how music works from reading this book-in fact I really wish I'd had it for an intro to my freshman studies! Powell is very gifted at explaining tricky concepts in a concrete way. After each of his explanations I felt I truly understood what he'd expressed, and his gentle sense of humor made for a fun as well as educational...more
Garrett Burnett
He's a scientist, a musician, and a funny guy. This makes John Powell the perfect guy to explain things like why 10 violins aren't 10 times louder than 1 violin, why certain notes sound good together, and how microphones work. For musically inclined, you'll get a nice little dose of science to explain all those eardrum waggling vibrations. For those who cannot read music, you'll learn how (and why) key signatures work. It is fun and interesting with a few illustrations along the way.
Radu
Pretty interesting and explained in an easy to understand style.
Nicholas Karpuk
Sometimes it amuses me to read the negative reviews when I finish reading a book. Partly because many negative reviews seem petty and vague about their grievances, but also due to the tendency some readers have of not acknowledging that a book flat out isn't for them.

Many of the negative reviews came from people steeped in musical theory. It's a bit like Lance Armstrong criticizing a kid's tricycle. At a certain point you will reach a level of expertise where you are no longer an accurate judge...more
Philip
Oct 10, 2011 Philip added it
Recommends it for: College students studying string or keyboard music.
Introductory classes are some of the most difficult of any college course. The reason being that they teach very little about a lot. Most college professors/teachers/instructors will be pretty honest about that. Part of what makes those classes so difficult is the textbooks. They can be extremely difficult to undertand when each chapter focuses on so little, without giving the big picture by the book's end. That's the major downfall to John Powell's 'How Music Works'.

'How Music Works' is little...more
Pearlie Ng
I was having breakfast with my son one morning in the mall when I got distracted by all the noise around me. I was reading a book and I so wished there were quiet corners reserved just for those who'd appreciate a quiet meal but nope, my desire for tranquility was beleaguered by screams, loud chatters and guffaws as wells as shouts of anger of a mother to her poor daughter. I don't blame them for the cacophony. It's a public place after all.

I remembered then that I have just downloaded an app i...more
Michael Lee Medvin
I took way to long to finish this book, but it wasn't the kind of book I would want to read fast. I enjyoed the book's way of speaking to the audience. There was a good sense of humour, and jokes that kept the book from becoming dull. I am left wanting to learn more about the subject and wanting to reread the book to catch anything I forgot or accidentaly missed. I found the history around music neat and something I didn't expect. Going into this book with virtually no background knowledge made...more
Wendy Hines
Watch American Idol? Those judges tell the contestants alot that their pitch is off. Ever wonder what that meant? Well, you can find out what pitch is in this wonderful book! John Powell takes us to the basics, showing us the science of how music works. He includes different instruments and explains the sounds they make, as well as discussing harmony, scales, and much more.

Everyone has certain songs that make them feel different things. It brings out emotions in us, and Powell talks about how th...more
Karen Chung
Much of what's in this book was review for me - I teach acoustic phonetics, and have worked through many works similar to this one. I read it mainly to see if I could get some new ideas on how to teach things like frequency, harmonics and decibels, and I did pick up some useful and interesting bits. I found the second half of the book, which is more on music per se rather than just acoustics, more engaging. The included CD gives clear examples of things like harmonics, and how and why the sharpn...more
Mrpozor
While I was initially looking for a more traditional music theory book, I think this one was a much better investment.
It is a very accessible take on how music works and treats the subject from a completely different angle than any other book I looked at. Whereas music theory courses usually start with how music is written, what scales are and so on, this book goes even farther back to the absolute fundamentals (sound waves) and then takes you on a journey all the way to the analysis of modern m...more
Nina Laube
Many people don't fancy the idea of reading a non-fiction book. They are under the impression that all factual books must be like text books- unentertaining and pedantic. But John Powell proves them all wrong in his fascinating book: How Music Works. How Music Works lends insight into almost all fields of music and song. John Powell presents us with information in a way that thoroughly explains the concept to those who have never studied music while not seeming condescending and still moving qui...more
B J Burton
Why are some sounds musical and others merely a noise? Why do some notes go together to make a pleasant chord and others do not? Why does music affect our mood? If you have ever wondered about such things then this is the book for you. The physics and mathematics of making music are explained in a very accessible manner.
What could have become a heavy-going topic really isn’t. The author has a light touch and his, largely self-deprecating, humour carried me along without too much head scratching....more
Sam Smallarz
This book is great! John Powell uses an entertaining voice to explain some typically confusing musical theories and he does it very well. As a younger musician who is very interested in science, I started this book thinking, "Oh no, this is another one of those simple books that try to teach me what I already know." Boy, was I wrong. I have to admit that, after reading some more challenging books, I was more than a little irritated up until the second page where John says, "This may be over-expl...more
Hans-Peter Merz


Ein grossartiges Buch ueber alle wesentlichen Aspekte von Musik. Humorvoll und klar erlaeutert, worum es dabei wirklich geht. Ich habe erstmals verstanden, dass es sich bei den verschiedenen Tonarten einfach um eine Auswahl der pro Oktave zur Verfügung stehenden 12 Töne handelt, die jeweils ganz gut miteinander hamonieren. Auch den Kontrapunkt konnten mir andere Autoren nicht annähernd so klar erläutern. Mp3 kann Powell wirklich auf einer Buchseite abschliessend beschreiben.

Nicht einig gehe ic...more
Keith Rosenberg
Excellent buy - I knew a decent amount of music theory but very little about the physics of acoustics, and I found this book very easy to follow. The author has a great writing style that reminds me of Mick Goodricks "The Advancing Guitarist" - even when he says something that's a little more challenging to grasp, he wraps it up w a little comic relief and it really helps these big ideas stick in your memory. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found the information very valuable - id even say in...more
رفدي أحمد
wonderful.

As he said, One will appreciate more if one was to know how something works.

"A best bit of advice from one listener to another, what ever your present taste, there are probably several types of music out there that will bring you a lot of pleasure if you became more familiar with them. My advice is this; Try adding a bit of randomness to your listening pattern and give each new types of music, a fair try. If you're in the heavy metal, try some folk music. If you love Mozart, try Dolly...more
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Goodreads Librari...: More than one John Powell 4 151 Sep 16, 2012 02:05PM  
  • The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It
  • Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination
  • Music, Language, and the Brain
  • The Art of Practicing: A Guide to Making Music from the Heart
  • Music and the Mind
  • The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
  • The Inner Game of Music
  • The Joy of Music
  • The Study of Counterpoint
  • The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
  • The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
  • The Lives of the Great Composers
  • 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die
  • Music: A Very Short Introduction
  • Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
  • The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music
  • Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning
  • Tonal Harmony, with an Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

John Powell holds a PhD in physics from Imperial College at London University. He has taught physics at the University of Nottingham and the University of Lulea in Sweden. In 2003, he earned a master's degree in music composition from the University of Sheffield in Great Britain.

Source: How Music Works - Hachet...more
More about John Powell...
Come funziona la musica: La scienza dei suoni bellissimi, da Beethoven ai Beatles e oltre (Salani Saggi e Manuali)

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“Music without the ebb and flow would be like "watching a film with only good guys in it." -attrib Frank Zappa” 8 likes
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