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

Image of How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond
Release Date: 
November 3, 2010
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

So how does music work? In this age of instant gratification, most of us do not care how music works, so long as it does. We turn on our iPods and expect music (provided we have charged the battery like we should). We turn our computers on and assume that whatever we want to hear is just a click away. The television also uses music, even if it is more subliminal than the focus of the show. Music is a bigger part of our lives than most of us ever realize.

Which is why we should know how it works. In his book, How Music Works, author John Powell takes us through several basic concepts used in the creation of music. He discusses why different notes sound higher or lower than others thanks to changes in frequency. He talks about why a saxophone and a guitar can play the same note, but sound completely different. Powell’s book is an amalgamation of an introductory music theory class and a simplified physics of sound course, with just a dash of stand-up comedy for kicks.

The author uses humor (British humour, but mostly to good effect) to try and keep the book from getting bogged down in too many details. After all, how many times can someone discuss how a string vibrates differently when producing subsequent overtones without getting a little blah? The book almost feels like an episode of “Sesame Street” for grown-ups. Today’s reading was brought to you by the letter A and the number 440 (if you do not get why this is significant . . . read the book).

Advanced musicians may feel that the book comes off a little trite, but that could be because Powell distills the subject that we have spent literally decades learning into a mere 250 pages. On the flip side, this is by no means a comprehensive study of how music works. To fully cover this topic takes the aforementioned decades of time and volume upon volume of research.

How Music Works operates exactly how Powell intended it: as an introduction to the world behind the musical scenes. It provides a brief overview of various topics that could be discussed when answering the titular question.

The author began his musical quest after someone asked him “What’s gravy?” and he realized that sometimes things become so familiar, even though we have no idea what they actually are. By reading Powell’s book we can gain a more solid knowledge of the foundations of music and therefore be better able to appreciate it the next time we pop in those white earbuds.