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

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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, 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, and engaging voice, Powell fascinates the reader with his delightful descriptions of the science and psychology lurking beneath the surface of music. With lively discussions of the secrets behind harmony, timbre, keys, chords, loudness, musical composition, and more, HOW MUSIC WORKS will be treasured by music lovers everywhere. The book also includes a CD of examples and exercises from the book.


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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, 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, and engaging voice, Powell fascinates the reader with his delightful descriptions of the science and psychology lurking beneath the surface of music. With lively discussions of the secrets behind harmony, timbre, keys, chords, loudness, musical composition, and more, HOW MUSIC WORKS will be treasured by music lovers everywhere. The book also includes a CD of examples and exercises from the book.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    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 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 hear some examples (very helpful). The writing style is jokey and lighthearted throughout. I agree with at least 90% of the opinions contained in the book so Dr. Powell is speaking to the choir when it comes to me (although I don't agree with him that everyone can develop some degree of musical ability; he never met my mother or mother-in-law!). The book does lose a bit of steam at the end; it's kind of like a course that has been too thorough in the beginning so to make up for it rushes through a bunch of important topics in the last week. For example, there is only one chapter on rhythm. While the physics of rhythm is probably nothing to get excited about - thump, thump, thump isn't as interesting from a wave standpoint as a melody - rhythm is just as essential to music as pitch and deserves at least three chapters on its own in my humble opinion. For the first 200 pages or so, How Music Works offers just the right amount of detail; it's thorough but not ponderous. It you like books that explore the science of art (or cooking), I highly recommend this delightful book.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Natalie

    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 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 loud as they can? For those who have left a concert crying? or with their eyes crossed? or their hearts beating madly? Is it for dancers? choreographers? band teachers? parents? People who cry when they hear the NPR theme song? Movie lovers who know the sound track is crazy important to how much they like a film, but don't know why? Guess what? The answer is yes to every question above! Why? Because John Powell uses easy to understand, well illustrated language, lots of descriptive textual and audio examples(on the accompanying CD), plenty of anecdotes and self deprecating humor to help the reader through a huge range of knowledge about the physics and techniques of music which can help anyone become a better musician, listener, teacher, student or just plain music lover! Still reading? then you might enjoy From Bach To Beer Bottles, The Physics of Music an Ira Flatow NPR Science Friday interview with John Powell. I received this book for free as part of goodreads' first-reads program.

  3. 4 out of 5

    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 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 (as stated in the subtitle) a [fairly dedicated] listener, it's an invaluable resource. Finding out all the little "fiddly details" of music -- from how it leaves the instrument to how it hits our ears, and all in between -- ends up being equal parts informative and hilarious. I found myself giggling half the time at terrible gems like these: "I only understand this in theory -- my attempts to do it sadly resulted in that unfortunate incident with next door's dog." (68) or "Widespread disappointment -- we have a roomful of expensive twins and glockenspiels but a lot of the sound is simply disappearing. Let's send them all down to the hotel lobby for afternoon tea whilst I explain what is happening." (85-6) or "Of course, if you carry on doing this for too long you are likely to find a certain author creeping up behind you with a garrotte in one hand and body bag in the other." (227) or a plethora of other context-based jokes. Mixed in with all the snark, though, is remarkably lucid descriptions of instruments, pitch, and all the fascinating things that happen when a song is played -- and when it is listened to. A couple of grievances, however: 1) If you have basic musical knowledge -- and I mean BASIC: I played the clarinet in high school and that's about it, friends -- a lot of the information can be repetitive. I already know how to read time signatures, about the importance of chords and harmonies, etc. That's not to say it wasn't a good refresher course, but I don't think I buy the marketing of this book for the musically-literate. It's a primer -- a good primer, but not a comprehensive one. 2) Someone else's review mentions that the book seems to speed up at the end, and I think this is a fair statement. I would've loved to see more information on what happens in the listener's brain (though I guess that's Daniel J. Levitin's job, right?), and on how composers do their thing --- but most of this book is dedicated to the physical processes of music. Interesting in their own right, but not exactly why I bought the book. Nonetheless, Powell instantly got my attention and held it for the duration. Bravo. Anyone interested in music or British humour should give this a shot!

  4. 5 out of 5

    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 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 information without form or understanding. Light dawns! as one of my music teachers was relieved to exclaim after a couple of arduous sessions. I was bummed to finish today, contemplated the criminal act of keeping a library book, and then remembered - it's mine! to refer to again, to remember, to enjoy a little fun, history and music whenever I'd like. In the back is a "Fiddly Details" chapter that explains the higher concepts in more depth. You'll want to read about the trucker's gear modulation, and you'll never hear another pop song without noting it (or in the Beatles' music the lack thereof.) Powell organized this book like a symphony, and like a symphony I'll visit it repeatedly to appreciate even more. Buy this book - you'll be glad to have it on your shelf.

  5. 5 out of 5

    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 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 of some of you having an “aha” moment on reading the definition of the moment itself). One doesn’t usually get many such moments while reading. That is because we rarely pick up books on such topics since we subconsciously feel we already know about it. So, for example, most of the science books I have read taught me new things, but almost none have made me reinterpret things I already knew, to the extent this book has. One must note that the simple moments when you understand something are radically different from light-bulb moments. For example if someone were to explain, to those of us who have never played drums, why the notes of the bass drums last so much shorter than the notes of the cymbals, we will get the feeling of having understood something new, but it will never be that light-bulb moment, for we aren’t familiar with the instrument. But if you explain the same thing to someone who has played the instrument for some time, he will start nodding vociferously with a wide grin on his face. Say hello to the “aha” moment. Pardon me if I have spent too much time explaining a term (the “aha” moment) which many people, including some of my friends, find very irritating. But this is really a crucial aspect of my experience of reading this book. As the pages turn, Powell builds up the lay-person’s theory of music, starting from notes, the alphabets of music. Do you know what is a note? It is any sound which has a repeating waveform – which basically means our ears receive the same information again and again many times a second. This often, though not necessarily, has a physical basis. For example, when you hit your table, it will also produce a note for the layers and particles of wood will always vibrate in the same way (provided you hit at the same point with a similar force each time). That is why most of the solid objects give, more or less, the same sound on being hit again and again. Some of these notes will be crystal clear (like tapping a piece of good quality glass) while others we will hardly characterise as notes (like asbestos) - but that is because they aren’t producing notes but noises, which are themselves a chaotic combination of notes (and a different set each time you hit them) due to which there is no repeating pattern as such. From notes emerges the idea of the octave (do you know the relation between the various notes in an octave?); the relations between the notes in an octave lead us to keys (do you know what major and minor keys really are? Theoretically there are many other possible keys, many of which have been tried at different points in history, and the fact that just two survive today is an example of musical evolution over the ages); keys lead us to chords, and chords to symphonies. The fact that Powell has a great sense of humour adds to the experience of reading the book. It is not uncommon to find authors who try to sound funny but fail miserably. Thankfully though, Powell has a great sense of timing and execution in this regard and this lifts up his exposition by a few notches. Reading this book was like walking into the kitchen with the chef as he told you the recipe of your favourite dish, and although you can’t make the dish yourself, you are still able to grasp the importance of each item, and its role in the final dish. Now I know why the sound of a violin is much more rich and complex than that of a flute; why major keys seem to sound cheerful and minor keys sad; what exactly the role of a conductor in an orchestra is, and loads of other such things. If you had asked me, a fortnight back, why plucking a particular guitar string at different places, without changing the fret, produces different sounds, I would have stared at you with a lost expression, and then blurted some random physical reason, in which I myself didn’t believe one bit. But now, I can tell you it is because plucking at different places leads to the generation of different combinations of harmonics, leading to a different sound. Reading this book has enabled me to see an art form from a very close perspective. Many people love music, most of them listen to it passively, and that is not because they don’t want to be active listeners – they just don’t know how to interpret the structure of a given musical piece. This book is doing a great job of turning passive listeners to active listeners. Talking about structure, there is one aspect in which the book does fall behind a bit. Towards the end the author tries to take up some topics, but does not cover them to the extent needed. As a reader I felt I would be learning them in slightly more detail, because of the importance of the topics chosen, but they are handled in a rushed, almost forced, manner. However, that should not take anything away from the lucidity of the rest of the book and I am sure that by the time you finish reading it, you will learn a lot of new things you previously had no clue about – including why I chose this specific title for this review.

  6. 4 out of 5

    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 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 really well organized and helpful. In short, I am a huge fan of this book!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Anthoney

    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 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 harmony. Indian classical music, for example, tends to use one, or perhaps two, melodic instruments together with percussion and/ or rather static, drone-like accompaniments. Good examples of this type of music can be found on most recordings from the Indian sub-continent with the word ‘raga’ or ‘rag’ in the title. ‘Raga’ means colour or mood in Sanskrit – and is the name given to an improvised piece of music. Probably the most famous musician of this genre is the sitar player Ravi Shankar, and a great example is ‘Raga Anandi Kalyan’, which he plays with his daughter Anoushka, who is also a world-famous sitar player." .."Improvisation is common to all musical societies. For example, Indian traditional music concentrates heavily upon it. The training of a Western classical musician involves lots of repetition in an attempt to play the notes written by a composer correctly. Traditional Indian musical training is all about how to compose your own music on your instrument as you go along. The idea is that you have a group of notes as your basic building blocks, and you use them to improvise a piece lasting several minutes. Each group of notes or ‘raga’ is associated with a mood and a time of day. The ability to improvise well is a highly respected talent and it can lead to some interesting interplay between the musicians" ... reference to the highly entertaining jugalbaandis. I revere my country's rich, rich, and deep cultural heritage and grateful for it, it stands up with the best of the world art's tradition and knowledge, so while I do not know enough of it such notings help to increase that awareness for me

  8. 4 out of 5

    William Blair

    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 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 about sound reproduction, but about the tease in the subtitle of the book, "the psychology of beautiful sounds." Despite the author's best efforts to "dumb down" the physics and physiology of music production, reproduction, and hearing, I don't think he achieved that goal. While there was nothing that I could not (or did not) understand, this book's writing style is the first non-academic book for which I could say the word "pedantic" was coined. Boring. Beyond belief. I don't think you can explain concepts that fundamentally lie in the realm of physics (and anatomy) without using, if not big words, big concepts. Instead of wasting dozens of pages about, basically, frequency analysis, why not just go ahead and explain (or reference an explanation of) Fourier analysis? Even when I knew (or thought I knew) where the author was going, I was both bored sensless and amazed at his ability to really talk down to an audience which I think the author perceived as being technology- or science-challenged. What a waste of his mind and effort! There's about 25 pages of good information in this ~240 page book that is interesting. I learned many facts that I have never before encountered. The rest is verbal embroidery for the supposedly dense or recalcitrant. Unless you truly have the patience to deal with pedantic kingergarten-type instruction, avoid this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jan

    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 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 sentence? And then put check marks at the end of every paragraph?! Do they read every book like this?" It was so distracting that I eventually had to go through and erase it all. Yes, that's right. I erased someone else's damn pencil marks so I could read a book without being thoroughly annoyed by whoever made the marks. But even that was annoying because then it took me twice as long to read. So don't mark your library books, people. It's rude as all get out. End rant. As for the book itself, my rating is closer to 3.5 stars than 3. It was very informative, and Powell's writing style and sense of humor kept it from being dry and boring. I'm a complete music novice. I love music but know virtually nothing about the mechanics of it. So I felt like I learned a lot. However, I felt like a lot of concepts were OVER explained, to the point where I either got confused, or I started to tune out. Also, whenever he pulled out numbers or fractions, I went cross-eyed. Still, I would recommend this book to anyone looking to get a better handle on the nuts and bolts of how music is both made and perceived.

  10. 5 out of 5

    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 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 informed about music can understand. Information is presented in small sectional chunks within the chapters that are easy to digest. There are little exercises to try throughout to illustrate the concepts and to keep the reader engaged. There is also an audio CD with examples to enhance the experience, as well. The author also peppers humor throughout, which, although mostly corny, helps lighten the material. Nevertheless, this book fell short of my expectation of it being a book that I can hand to anyone to read and enjoy. One has to have a certain level and type of interest to get through this book, and I truly doubt that the average music lover has this level of interest or cares enough. There were times when even I would have rather been listening to or making music than reading the book. I cannot think of anyone that I know that would read this book all the way through without it being a task for them. However, if you do have that level and type of curiosity, then this is a good read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    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 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 instruments to the same key! I have spent most of my life around musicians and I don't think even they could explain some of the things in this book. There are wonderful illustration as well as a lot of interesting facts. I mean, how else could you learn the true meaning of decibels or how loud is too loud? This would make an excellent gift for anyone who love music or thrives on trivia.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    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.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian Barnett

    Entertaining and informative introduction to the history, psychology, and physics of music.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Micheal Hermens

    Great book! Informative and also enjoyable to read!

  15. 4 out of 5

    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, 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, the remaining harmonics will still sound the same to the human ear. Older speakers took advantage of this, leaving out the lowest frequency like the 55 Hz for the A note so they could save money on the size and materials for the speaker design. Chord changes were kind of cool too and got me wondering what chords and what key was used in some well known songs. So I found this website that allows you to change the key of several interesting songs, if you go into piano mode. http://www.hooktheory.com This was kind of nice because it allowed you to play around with the existing songs, kind of tampering with the genius of Paul McCartney and so one, to try and see what makes a song memorable. The part of the book I enjoyed most occurred late and with little elaboration. After describing why classical music has its appeal and then contrasting it with pop songs, Powell gets into how current music is constructed. By design, these songs are set up to get you to remember the tunes, get addicted and then just as quickly want to move on to another tune. But he is quickly bored as a musiciain to begin with and chooses instead to describe great classical music. This he likens to a long carpet which is gradually unrolled as you begin to walk over it. Each piece you have passed over reverberates and is then repeated in a different key or through a chord change later or transformed into a different melody entirely. He finds that he has to listen to a long classical piece a dozen times to begin to play the game of anticipation and to view the entire carpet. Much of the text is intertwined with humor, keeping the tone much like the “XXX for dummies” kind of style. So while it was an easier read, it left me wanting more. The author is a brilliant guy and I might have found him more interesting in going over a major work of music to draw out for the reader exactly what he is listening to. To keep the level of the reading simple though, Powell used Baa Baa Black Sheep to demonstrate a melody. I don’t know, I think the book had a lot of promise, but could have done much more.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sps

    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 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 than a stew--and the anthropomorphizing very occasionally gets in the way of describing what's actually happening. Overall, however, a blessed resource. So simple and clear! On what makes a note, and which notes we can distinguish with our human ears: "Musical notes are different from non-musical noises because every musical note is made up of a ripple pattern which repeats itself over and over again....However, our eardrums can't respond properly if the ripple pattern repeats itself too quickly or too slowly--we can only hear patterns which repeat themselves more often than twenty times a second but less often than 20,000 times a second." (23) On pizzicato: "If you pluck a held-down string, you get a 'thunk' rather than a clear note. This thunking noise is called pizzicato and it's occasionally used by composers to get a tuneful but percussive effect from violins and other stringed instruments--the Pizzicato Polka by Johann Strauss is a great example of this." (54) On how our ears distinguish instruments playing the same pitch (frequency): "It may sound daft, but we get a lot of our information about which instrument is playing from the unmusical noises the instrument makes just before each note starts, rather than from the notes themselves." (43) So that's part of it--the transients and envelope--plus its formant: "For example, on a violin, the mixture of harmonics for the note middle C involves lots of fundamental frequency backed up by the second, fourth and eighth harmonics. On a flute, however, the same note involves mostly the second harmonic backed up by the fundamental and the third harmonic." (44-45)

  17. 4 out of 5

    Carlos Martinez

    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 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 popular science book, and I was able to understand most stuff pretty easily without having to rewind much. I will revisit This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession at some point soon, as it adds a neuroscience and psychology element that isn't really covered here.

  18. 5 out of 5

    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 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 included is a CD that illustrates many of the point discussed in the book with real examples. This is a nice touch, though the CD itself is very short. Overall this book is a fun look at some rarely discussed concepts in music.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    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 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 willing to concentrate while you're reading, but I also don't know that I've seen somebody make physics as accessible as Powell does here.

  20. 5 out of 5

    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 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 recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about the workings and meanings of music.

  21. 4 out of 5

    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 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 things to say about music that you may have always wondered about.

  22. 4 out of 5

    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 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 read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    The Mysterious Force

    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.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Radu Stanculescu

    Pretty interesting and explained in an easy to understand style.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Shawn

    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, 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, and harmonics actually are and why they are so prevalent. There is some history of how civilization arrived at these methods, including some entertaining bits and pieces. However, anytime Powell tries to crack a joke I can't help but cringe. I get that this is not an academic book and being aimed at the masses allows for some wiggle room, but his attempt at wit actually has the opposite effect on me: I wish he'd get back to the dry science-y bits. While I do now have a better understanding of what a fugue is, what sonata means, and how changes in key work, I feel that there is nothing exceptional here. I felt like I was taken back to my middle school music classes. So I wouldn't suggest this to any musicians, unless they wanted a bit more information on the physics aspects of sound, and as a casual music listener I felt like this wasn't what I was essentially after to help make me sound less pretentious when discussing my favorite music.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Pericles

    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 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 standardize what is conceived as an A, and from there all other notes are only intervals from that note. Also, very interesting explanations on how westerns and eastern perceived scales and how we got to the current division with 12 notes. The second part of the book is pretty simple for someone who's already a musician. The author explains what measures are, time signatures, and things that any musician will learn. While it can be useful for individuals who never studies music, this literature can be found anywhere. The first portion of the book was much more interesting and educational in my opinion, as musicians don't often understand the physics involved in notes and the history behind the ET model. Beyond anything, this author is a great storyteller and adds some funny parts, just to the right measure. I had lots of fun reading this book and highly recommend it

  28. 4 out of 5

    Cindy

    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 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 author (with a British accent, not the American narrator) played some music to illustrate a few points. Not as many as I would have liked, but helpful. I especially enjoyed his guitar demonstration of vibrato and rubato [(Italian: 'stolen'). An instruction to play with freedom. Rubato allows performers to deviate from strict tempo regularity, and can enhance expressive playing. In essence, by 'stealing' time, or borrowing it, it should be contrasted with strict time, in a musically correct method of atonement. - from the Classicfm.com glossary]

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sdubby

    This is a great introductory book for anyone who wants to learn about western music. I love the way it was written, very accessible and often funny too. I found the first half to be very interesting about sound frequencies and how instruments work. My only criticism is that, being a musician myself, there was not a ton of new information in the second half of the book. He does a good job explaining scales, modes, and such, but for anyone who has some experience with music or music theory it will This is a great introductory book for anyone who wants to learn about western music. I love the way it was written, very accessible and often funny too. I found the first half to be very interesting about sound frequencies and how instruments work. My only criticism is that, being a musician myself, there was not a ton of new information in the second half of the book. He does a good job explaining scales, modes, and such, but for anyone who has some experience with music or music theory it will come off as pretty basic common knowledge. Overall a good read and I would like to read his other book on music.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Robin

    The book started off great and very interesting, but I lost interest halfway through and got drawn away by books that were more interesting to me. Still I think there is quite a bit of interesting information in here and I definitely have learned a good amount about music and how it works. One thing that wasn't answered to me at the point where I stopped was why louder music sounds better. Perhaps one day when I'm interested in more of the details I will get back into this. Don't let my 3 star rati The book started off great and very interesting, but I lost interest halfway through and got drawn away by books that were more interesting to me. Still I think there is quite a bit of interesting information in here and I definitely have learned a good amount about music and how it works. One thing that wasn't answered to me at the point where I stopped was why louder music sounds better. Perhaps one day when I'm interested in more of the details I will get back into this. Don't let my 3 star rating dissuade you, it's very worth it if you're interested in learning more about music and how it works.

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