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

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  3,780 ratings  ·  202 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 2010)
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May 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
May 27, 2013 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
Linda Robinson
Nov 18, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 18, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Feb 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music, science, non-fic
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
Oct 12, 2015 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
William Blair
Feb 20, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Apr 05, 2015 rated it liked it
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
Oct 31, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, music, nonfiction
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.
Brian Barnett
Sep 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Entertaining and informative introduction to the history, psychology, and physics of music.
Micheal Hermens
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great book! Informative and also enjoyable to read!
Sep 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
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,
Oct 02, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Carlos Martinez
May 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music
Listened to the audiobook and really enjoyed it. The book gives a very user-friendly overview of the physics of music, as well as an introduction to music theory. I've done my fair share of music study, so the music theory side of things was decidedly familiar, but I still picked up lots of interesting historical information (eg how the scale modes - Dorian, Mixolydian etc - got their names). The physics was almost completely new to me, and I found it fascinating. The level was just right for a ...more
Jul 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 09, 2018 rated it liked it
This is ultimately a book about physics, and while I believe Powell did his damnedest to make it conversational, I still feel like it's the kind of content I'd have to read a few times before it started to make sense to me. This isn't the only Powell book I've read, so I'm pretty certain the dad jokes are just a part of his writerly essence, they ... they got a bit grating after a while. There's probably not much reason to read this unless you're interested enough in the topic itself to be willi ...more
Connie Mayo
Feb 05, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Sep 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music, science
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
May 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, music
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 Stanculescu
Pretty interesting and explained in an easy to understand style.
Amelia Lim
I really enjoyed the first half of the book, definitely learned some interesting facts for example:
1. Plucking a guitar string produces not only one frequency, but a lot of frequencies (fundamental and harmonics). And it is because of this whole mixture of frequencies makes a guitar sounds like a guitar. The different proportion and lifetime of fundamental frequency and harmonics is the reason why different musical instrument has its own unique timbre (tone colour).
2. Why harp and flute sounds m
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was ok
This was very straightforward and definitely delivered on the promise to tell how music works. The basics are all laid out and then increasingly technical ideas are presented. Sort of rounding all this out, a few things such as advice for new musicians, the answer as to what does a composer do up there, and what is the essential difference between pop music and "serious" or classical music is. Learning the science was useful to forming a more complete picture in my head of what octaves, scales, ...more
Jan 25, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Musician here. I found the first few chapters of the book to be extremely useful, as the author explain the physics of how musical notes reach our brain by making our eardrums respond to the frequency of the notes sent your way. He explains what is a pitch, how things worked when there was no agreement on different countries on what notes should sound like (e.g.: the A note sounded one way in Austria, but a different way in Italy) until finally in the 1930's a group of people decided to standard ...more
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: music
2.5 stars

This book wasn't terrible- just disappointing.

I took piano lessons for most of my childhood and, while I don't often play these days, I am huge fan of music and love to learn more. With all this in mind, I was hoping that this book would be a deeper dive into the science of music and that I would learn a lot from this book, even with my musical background.

And in that, I was fairly disappointed. Some of the information was new and interesting - mostly the information about instruments th
Jul 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
An interesting book on how music is defined (vs sound in general), how instruments are tuned and the different styles of music. The relative dryness of the material was made more enjoyable by the author’s self-deprecating, music-nerd humor (yes, that’s a thing). It could make me a better composer (to the extent I compose at all), and it did satisfy the “Book About Music or by a Musician” requirement on this summer’s Book Bingo reading challenge. The audiobook had some enhancements where the auth ...more
Eliana  Ganesan
Jun 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
I found myself thinking of the several people I'd like to recommend this book to while reading it. It'd make the perfect introduction to music for the novice musician or anyone who enjoys listening to music.

My favourite topics covered were the pentatonic scale, the various other scales, equal temperament and the perception of major and minor modes as happy and sad. Powell seems to have the ability to make complex musical subjects relevant and easily understood by even the non-musician.

The only
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Goodreads Librari...: More than one John Powell 4 153 Sep 16, 2012 02:05PM  

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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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