Monday, January 9, 2012

How music works: The science and psychology of beautiful sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyonce

By John Powell

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

The idea that someone would have a background (Ph.D. no less!) in physics and, in addition, a master’s degree in music composition sounds like an educational oxymoron.  Then to bring these two areas of expertise together in a book that explains “how music works” is both unique and incredibly interesting.  (And I thought my upbringing in science (an undergraduate minor) combined with a B.A. in speech communication was unusual!)  Not only that, but Powell has taught both physics and musical acoustics.  I mention this simply because these three areas (physics, music, and teaching) are beautifully juxtaposed in this excellent book.

Powell packs so much into this well-written, well-illustrated, well-explained, informative, and entertaining book that it is hard to know where to begin in reviewing it.  Actually, if you have ever dabbled in music, if you play or have played an instrument, if you are a professional disc-jockey (as my older son is), or if you are simply a leisurely, laid-back listener of music, buy this book.  I guarantee: 1) you will enjoy it, and 2) you will learn a great deal from it.  You can then just skip my review of it because all I do is support these two justifications for purchasing it.

There is a question I have often answered for students at the university that becomes relevant once again with this book: “Doesn’t having an education make you more critical of things?”  Actually, the answer is, “No.”  Having an education increases your appreciation of things.  It brings a deeper understanding, more background knowledge, a greater history, and, thus, a better grasp of everything in the world.  It offers a context and frame of reference so that not only can you ask intelligent questions but you can give more informed, thorough, and substantiated answers as well.  I have learned that the more education you have, the more you want to learn: It instills the teacher in you!

Powell was concerned about this as well when he says, “Some people worry that understanding more about music will reduce the pleasure they get from it, but the reverse is true.  Learning how a complicated dish is prepared makes you appreciate it even more, and doesn’t change how good it tastes” (p. 4).

This response provides insight into one of Powell’s teaching abilities: throughout the book, he creates realistic, practical, hands-on analogies with which readers can closely relate, to make his points.

How pedestrian do his analogies get?  After quoting Professor Frederick Corder, who wrote the book The Orchestra, and How to Write for It (1894), and Corder’s disdain for the trumpet, the guitar, viola, and oboe, Powell writes, “ . . . I dread to think what he would have said about the drinking straw oboe.  All you need in order to own one of these magnificent instruments is a drinking straw and a pair of scissors.  The illustration below shows you what to do” (p. 73).   Powell adds to his delightful explanation of how to use it, “You can even cut little finger holes and play dreadful out-of-tune melodies.  The long winter evenings will just fly by” (p. 73).  (I love Powell’s sarcasm.)

Among many other things, Powell explains what perfect pitch is, the difference between notes and noise, how loud is loud, the difference between harmony and cacophony, as well as how long it takes to become an expert, how musicians learn long and complicated pieces, how to select an instrument if you want to learn to play one, and the various elements involved in listening to music.  There is just so much in this 265-page book.  No, you don’t have to read all the detailed sections; choose just those that have interest (knowing, however, that when you do, you will be missing out on some of the author’s humorous asides, comments, and commentary).

This book is priceless — a treasure.  Thank you John Powell for this wonderful experience.  As just a casual, laid back, appreciater of all kinds of music — I do not play an instrument nor do I write music (although I have offspring who do) — I have learned so much, and this book has contributed greatly to the musical portion of my education.

How music works: The science and psychology of beautiful sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyonce can be found at

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