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

3.96  ·  Rating Details ·  2,402 Ratings  ·  149 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
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Published November 3rd 2010 by Little, Brown and Company (first published January 1st 2010)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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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
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Natalie
Jan 05, 2011 Natalie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 27, 2013 Jill rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pop-science
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
Nov 18, 2010 Linda Robinson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Yuganka Sharan
An Arpeggio of “Aha” moments

Do you know what is an “Aha” moment? It is not a moment when you learn something completely new. No, such moments are restricted to things that you think you know (whether consciously or subconsciously), but actually don’t know. These are those light-bulb moments that suddenly illuminate a darkened room in which you had been roaming for quite some time, and you end up realising that the origami plants on the window were in fact organic (I cannot deny the possibility o
...more
Maura
Feb 28, 2011 Maura rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fic, science, music
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
Anthoney
Oct 12, 2015 Anthoney rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, favorites
Perfect book to get to know music, except the attempts at humour were bit annoying, sort of pesky, cos they sounded kiddish but appreciate the author for trying to enliven the writing that way, probably he was scared it might be dry but it was not. Learnt many many things from the book. Thank you, Mr. Powell.

While not elaborate on the distinctions, especially liked the tidbits and references to Indian classical music. A sample:

"traditional non-Western music places far less emphasis on chords and
...more
William Blair
Feb 20, 2011 William Blair rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan
Apr 05, 2015 Jan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Do you mind if I rant for a bit? Of course you don't. First of all, let me be clear: this has nothing to do with the book itself. Someone who borrowed this book from the library before me underlined nearly every single sentence in pencil. It was painfully distracting. The pencil marks themselves weren't especially distracting. I just couldn't stop thinking about them. "What kind of jerk marks up a library book?" I would wonder every time I saw the marks. "Why did they underline practically every ...more
Urs
Nov 18, 2010 Urs rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: first-reads
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
Josh
Dec 21, 2016 Josh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, music, science
Kind of like taking a Music Appreciation class taught by a funny physics professor. Good way to learn about the science of music. With jokes.
Zach
Sep 28, 2012 Zach rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sps
Oct 02, 2012 Sps rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 13, 2011 Bennet rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: explores
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
Ryan
Jul 09, 2011 Ryan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 21, 2011 Sher rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Heather Pagano
Mar 28, 2013 Heather Pagano rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, music
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
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
Garrett Burnett
May 02, 2011 Garrett Burnett rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music, science
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.
The Mysterious Force
Jul 28, 2016 The Mysterious Force rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
AMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAZING.
Being a music nerd who has studied some music theory, I thought this was fabulous. A music psychology book simple enough for beginners and technical enough for advanced? Perfect. Funny commentary? Perfect! Makes total sense when applied to band? PERFECT!!! Infinity out of 5 stars.
Radu Stanculescu
Pretty interesting and explained in an easy to understand style.
Jordan Lewis
I left this book confused as to who the target reader is. It certainly isn't lifelong musicians, but it is unlikely to be non-musicians either. A few chapters were unfamiliar and interesting to me, like the basic science of how wind instruments produce sound and how microphones and speakers work, but some topics were so basic as to invite questions about why Powell even took them on in the first place. There are many other books on scales, keys, and reading music.

Music is a difficult field to wr
...more
Converse
Did you know that not all instruments produce notes, or that 90% of the sounds produced by a band can be thrown away with no effect on your perception of the music? I didn’t.
How Music Works is a short and wide-ranging description of what music is, not just in terms of musical conventions (scales, keys, notation, terminology of western classical music) and traditions, but also what it is physically, how it differs from other sounds, how we respond to it physiologically, and how it’s recorded. The
...more
Pearlie
Mar 27, 2012 Pearlie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Minyoung
Aug 06, 2014 Minyoung rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
2014-09-11 thoughts (read 2014-08-06 to 2014-09-11; read review on my site)
The subtitle of the book, 'The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds,' prompted me to pick this book up in hopes that it would provide me an introductory lesson on the physical and psychological aspects of music and how it does its magic on us emotionally. The book certainly covers most, if not all, of what one might consider to be important aspects of music: instruments, harmony, loudness, major and minor keys, scal
...more
Pietro
Oct 31, 2015 Pietro rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
È un duro mondo di ottave

Si può amare la musica in modi e a intensità diverse. C'è chi la tiene come sottofondo, quasi un pigolìo tenue che fa da accompagnamento nel tragitto casa/lavoro o chi se la spara nelle cuffie sui mezzi pubblici in modo da rendere partecipi tutti i passeggeri dei propri gusti (quasi sempre) opinabili. C'è poi chi ne trae un godimento riservato, ma totale, di completa sottomissione ai suoni. Sarebbe abbastanza banale ora dire che io amo la musica, perché mi sembrerebbe
...more
Philip
Aug 02, 2011 Philip added it  ·  review of another edition
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
Nicholas Karpuk
May 31, 2012 Nicholas Karpuk rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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Goodreads Librari...: More than one John Powell 4 152 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
  • Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning
  • The Inner Game of Music
  • The Joy of Music
  • Music Theory for Computer Musicians: 0
  • Emotion and Meaning in Music
  • 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (1,000... Before You Die Books)
  • The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven
  • The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
  • Listen to This
  • Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music, Volume 1
  • Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears
  • The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity
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
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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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