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

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

by John Powell

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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, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316183673
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 11/03/2010
Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format: NOOK Book
Sales rank: 1,061,956
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

How Music Works

The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond
By Powell, John

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Powell, John
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316098304

1. So, What Is Music, Anyway?

On my first evening as a student in Birmingham I walked into the local chip shop and asked for my favorite post-pub delicacy—chips, peas and gravy. The Chinese lady looked at me quizzically and asked, “What’s gravy?” I was totally flummoxed. I was used to unquestioned access to gravy back in my home town, and I had no idea how to describe the stuff…“A sort of thin brown sauce?” Fortunately the situation was saved—and a whole new world of Birmingham sophistication was opened up to me—when she smiled and said the magic words, “Curry sauce?”

This story is not about the pros and cons of gravy. The point is that sometimes we can be familiar with something we really enjoy, but have no idea what it actually is. This is the relationship most of us have with music—pleasure without understanding. To my shame, I must admit that I still don’t know what goes into gravy, but I have managed to untangle some of the ingredients of music, and I hope you enjoy my explanation of how musicians manage to manipulate our moods using only string, bits of wood and lengths of tubing.

This book is not based on opinions or hopeful guesswork. It is based on real information about how musical notes are produced and what happens when they combine to form a piece of music. Many people think that music is entirely built on art, but this is not true. There are rules of logic, engineering and physics underlying the whole creative side of music. The development of music and musical instruments over the past couple of millennia has depended on a continuous interplay of art and science.

You will be glad to hear that you need no musical or scientific training to understand this book, although musicians and scientists should find plenty of things they didn’t know before. The only musical skill you need is the ability to hum or sing two songs: “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”—and it doesn’t matter how quietly or badly you sing them, I can’t hear you. As far as math skills go, it would be useful if you can add, subtract, multiply and divide, but even these skills are not essential. Also, because I am assuming that you have no training in the subject, I will explain the meaning of any specialist words I use as I go along. This may be a little over-explanatory for the musicians and scientists among you, but I would rather be irritating to some than baffling to others.

Throughout the book I have occasionally provided details of pieces of music that might be useful to illustrate various points. Most of these examples can be watched on YouTube or listened to through other media—but they are not a necessary part of reading the book. I put them in because you might enjoy them, and because this is an excellent opportunity to advertise some of my favorite music. If you think I have explained something badly or you need more detail, please contact me by email on and I’ll see if I can come up with an answer. (This address can also be used by wealthy music firms who want to bribe me with vast sums to include references to particular bits of music in future editions of this book.)

Music covers an enormous range of subjects, from the love lives of the great composers to how to build a guitar or play the trumpet. You could say that books about the history of music cover the “when” questions and most other music-related books address the “how to” problems. This book, on the other hand, deals with some of the “what” and “why” questions about music like: what is happening to the air between the instrument and your ears? And why do such things affect your mood?

Read on, and you will discover the answers to these, and lots of other questions, including:

  • What’s the difference between a note and a noise?

  • What are minor keys, and why do they sound sad?

  • Why do ten violins sound only twice as loud as one?

  • Why do clarinets sound different from flutes?

  • Why are Western instruments all tuned to the same notes—and why those notes, not others?

  • What is harmony and how does it work?

Some of these questions have been answered in the books you will find in the physics section of the library, filed under “Musical Acoustics.” The only problem is that the technical nature of the subject has meant that these books use lots of math and complicated graphs in their explanations. Books full of graphs and math have a limited readership—and this is why the only people who seem to know anything about how music works are a few badly dressed academics (and I speak with some authority here, as a badly dressed academic myself).

When I first started to study the physics and psychology of music I thought it would be straightforward. How much can there be to understand about how saxophones and harps make different sounds or why we use scales? Then I started reading. Some of the things I had thought I understood, like loudness for example, were bizarrely complicated and much more interesting than I thought they would be. To aid my own understanding I began to condense the information into simpler explanations. Eventually I realized that most of this knowledge could be presented clearly to any reader who has no musical or technical training but simply loves music. So I started to put together the notes that eventually grew into this book.

Even some top-class musicians are not familiar with the basic underlying facts about music—they play their instruments and produce the correct notes in the right order without wondering how or why their instruments were designed to produce those particular notes and not others. It’s as if the musicians are acting like waiters—they deliver the meal to us—and the food is put together by chefs (composers) from boxes of ingredients, but no one knows how or why those ingredients became available in the first place.

I think it’s a shame that something as popular as music has had so much mystery attached to it. In writing this book, I haven’t used any math, graphs or written music, and I have kept the style conversational. By exploring the basic facts behind what notes are, and how they can move you to dance, kiss or weep, you’ll discover that many of the mysteries of music turn out to be perfectly understandable—and you’ll be delighted to hear that your newly acquired understanding won’t stop you from dancing, kissing or weeping.

My aim is to show you—both musicians and non-musicians—that music can be understood on a very fundamental level. This level of understanding can deepen our enjoyment of music in the same way that some knowledge of how shadows are created or how perspective works can enhance our enjoyment of a painting. 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.

Though this is a book about all music, I have concentrated on Western music of all types—from Frank Sinatra, U2 and Beethoven, to nursery rhymes and film music. All these styles of music, from punk rock to opera, follow the same rules of acoustics and mood manipulation.

There are complicated, overlapping layers of musical appreciation and understanding. At first glance you might think that the performing musician knows more about the music than a listener who can’t play an instrument, but this isn’t necessarily true. A non-musician who is a fan of the piece being played might know a lot more about how the music should sound than a performer who is playing it for the first time. As a listener, you understand a lot about music already, but a lot of your knowledge is hidden on a subconscious level. This book will help to explain and clarify all this stuff and I hope it will give you a few “ah, so that’s how it works!” moments.

But enough of the preamble—let’s get on with the ambling.

What is music?

The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was always keen on sharing his views on music, for example: “Brass bands are all very well in their place—outdoors and several miles away!” This is more than a little harsh on brass bands, but it does show that music can produce strong negative feelings as well as positive ones. When it comes to music, we all have our favorites and intense dislikes, so no definition of music can include words like “beauty” and “pleasure.” All we can safely say is that music is sound which has been organized to stimulate someone—which is a bit feeble really. The “someone” might be the composer only, and the “stimulation” might mean anything from joy to tears. Thankfully it is much easier to define the individual building blocks of music: notes, rhythm, melody, harmony, loudness and so on. We will be exploring all these subjects during the course of the book, and we will begin with the most basic block of all—the musical note.

A musical note consists of four things: a loudness, a duration, a timbre and a pitch. One of these features can be summed up in just one sentence but the other three will require a whole chapter or more each. “Duration” is the easy one, so let’s do it now: some notes last longer than others.

The most distinctive property of a musical note is its pitch, so we’ll start there.

What is pitch?

Pitch distinguishes a note from a noise. I will explain this at greater length over the next couple of chapters, but for now a short introduction will help to get us started.

If you hum any tune you like, you will be choosing a duration, a loudness and a pitch for each note you produce. Subtle changes in loudness and duration during a song can carry a lot of emotional information—but as we’re only going to be humming the first four notes of “Baa Baa Black Sheep” we don’t need to worry too much about that. So, try humming notes for these four words at the same loudness with the same duration for each note. All you are choosing now is the pitch. The first two notes have the same pitch; then there is a shift up in pitch to “Black”; and then “Sheep” is the same pitch as “Black.”

All musical notes involve regular, repeating vibrations in the air. When you were humming any single note just now, you were producing a regular vibration with your vocal cords that was repeating itself many times a second; when I hum “Baa” my vocal cords vibrate about a hundred times a second. When I hum the note for “Black” I have to produce a higher pitch note and I do this by increasing the number of vibrations I produce every second.

So, whether the note is produced by a vibrating string or the vibration of your vocal cords, higher pitch notes involve more vibrations per second. Every melody is made up of a string of notes of different pitches.

Naming our notes

The notes on a piano or any other instrument are named after the first seven letters of the alphabet; A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Between some of these letters there is an extra note (the black notes on a piano keyboard). For example, there is an extra note between A and B, which can be called either “A sharp” (meaning “one step higher than A”) or “B flat” (meaning “one step lower than B”). This fairly daft-sounding system of naming notes has been handed down to us over the past few centuries and I will explain why in chapter 9. For the moment all you need to know is that notes are named after letters and the letter might have the word “flat” or “sharp” after it. In the illustration below, I haven’t the space to write the words “flat” or “sharp,” so I’ve used the traditional symbols “” for flat and “#” for sharp.

All pianos are tuned to the same pitches. If you press a piano key in Helsinki and record the pitch of that particular note, and then compare it with a piano in New York, the notes will be identical. Similarly, the notes of clarinets or saxophones are the same all over the world. You might think this is obvious, but it’s not so long ago that the pitches of musical notes varied from country to country, or even from city to city. The notes everyone is using nowadays were carefully chosen—but who chose them? And why?

Why do we all use the same notes?

If you play a stringed instrument such as a violin or guitar, you can tighten or loosen the strings to alter their pitch. At a fairly early stage of your training you are taught how to use this tightening process to tune your instrument. This involves making the strings produce notes which are the correct distance apart in pitch. For example, the distance in pitch between any two adjacent violin strings is the same as the distance between “Baa” and “Black.”

Let’s say we are tuning a violin. The first step could be to tune our thickest string to the correct note, G, and then tune the other strings using the “Baa–Black” difference between each one. You would get the initial G by matching your violin note to a tuning fork or the correct note on a (tuned) piano. But what happens if you don’t have a tuning fork or piano handy?

If you are playing your instrument alone, you can choose any old note for the thickest string and then tune all the other strings to that one (making sure that the difference between any two strings is the same as the jump in pitch between “Baa” and “Black”). All you have to do to choose your first pitch is to make sure that the string is stretched tight enough to make a clear note, but not so tight that it snaps. The pitch you initially choose will not be G (unless you have perfect pitch, which I will describe in a while)—in fact, it will probably be a note between two adjacent piano keys, maybe “A and a bit” or “a bit lower than F.”

As long as the difference between your strings is the same as “Baa–Black,” the music you produce will sound fine and other musicians with stringed instruments could tune to match your notes and join in. However, if one of your friends is a flute player he will not be able to play along. This is because the notes on a flute (or any other wind instrument) are fixed—you can’t choose any old notes on a flute. Your flute-playing friend can play, for example, an “E” or an “F” but he can’t choose “E and a bit.”

Let’s say that you and your string-playing friends are all playing a tune that goes “E and a bit—F and a bit—C and a bit”—this will sound just as pleasant as the flute-playing E–F–C but if you both play at the same time it will sound horrible. There are only two ways to make music together:

  1. You violin players must hold the flute player down while one of you saws a few tenths of an inch off the end of his flute. Then you’ll have to file all the holes until they are in suitable positions for this new, shorter flute; or

  2. You can all tune your violins to match the flute notes. Once you have done this, any other instrument can join in with you because you are now playing the standard notes.

These standard notes are no sweeter or more musical than any other group of notes. They are only correct because someone had to decide how long flutes and other wind instruments should be. (The length of such instruments determines the pitch of the notes they produce.) In the past, things were very confused—flutes made in different countries were all slightly different lengths—which meant that a German flute player couldn’t play along with an English one unless he bought an English flute. After a lot of argy-bargy about which length was the best, it was decided that a bunch of experts in badly cut suits would form a committee and decide once and for all on a group of notes that everybody would use from then on. After a lot of expert discussion (which sounds a lot like argy-bargy), they decided on the notes we use today at a meeting in London in 1939. So now, all over the world, flutes and all the other Western instruments such as violins and clarinets, guitars, pianos and xylophones have a set of standard notes.

Nowadays, if someone says “I have perfect pitch” they mean that the pitches of these standard notes are fixed in their long-term memory, and this peculiar ability is the subject of the next chapter.


Excerpted from How Music Works by Powell, John Copyright © 2010 by Powell, John. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1 So, What Is Music, Anyway" 1

2 What Is Perfect Pitch and Do I Have It" 11

3 Notes and Noises 20

4 Xylophones and Saxophones: Same Notes but Different Sounds 39

5 Instrumental Break 48

6 How Loud is Loud" 81

7 Harmony and Cacophony 101

8 Weighing Up Scales 118

9 The Self-Confident Major and the Emotional Minor 141

10 I Got Rhythm 182

11 Making Music 203

12 Listening to Music 230

Fiddly Details 244

A Naming and Identifying Intervals 244

B Using the Decibel System 246

C Tuning an Instrument to the Pentatonic Scale 248

D Calculating Equal Temperament 250

E The Notes of the Major Keys 253

Bibliography 255

Acknowledgments 259

Index 261

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How Music Works 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
SweetPotatoFries More than 1 year ago
This author does have a very good working knowledge of his subject. I enjoyed the book and did understand parts of it, but I think it could have used a little more review of ideas and terms covered in earlier chapters. It's as if the author expects you to be able to recall all of the finer points associated with a particular idea simply by using the word in a new context. I found this a little difficult. I did enjoy the book and really loved the author's sense of humor. Also I did learn a good bit, but I probably need to read it again to let it all sink in.
datrappert on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
John Powell¿s How Music Works starts with the basics and does a good job of explaining the difference between sounds we accept as musical and those we reject as noise. The secret is that music has a regular repeating waveform. He then goes on to provide a hodgepodge of other interesting information, such as how two instruments (say a xylophone and a saxophone) can play the same note but sound different. (It has to do with the harmonics, or secondary frequencies that each instrument generates.) All of this is pretty interesting if you, like me, have a child who is very interested in music and you want to understand some of the basics a little better. He goes on to deal with such interesting subjects as why ten instruments don¿t sound ten times as loud as one instrument. (Since they aren¿t all exactly in phase, some of the waves cancel each other out. Just the way your noise-canceling headphones work.)If these examples sound interesting, you¿ll enjoy the book. It is as easy read, though it does give the impression of being thrown together somewhat haphazardly, and occasionally the author oversimplifies things too much. Powell throws one-liners into almost every paragraph, which becomes a bit old after a while, making me want to check to make sure this volume didn¿t have a yellow and black cover with the word ¿Dummies¿ in the title. To his great credit, he is wide-ranging in his tastes and understands the virtues of all types of music from classical to jazz to rock to folk.On the accompanying CD, Powell provides some examples, mostly using his guitar, that illustrate things such as the difference between a major and minor key, vibrato and rubato, etc. All in all the short time it takes to read this book is well worthwhile.
jotoyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How Music Works is right up my alley, as I studied music and have an interst in science as well. John powell not only knows about both science and music, he has an entertaining style of writing that is informative and humourous. His clear descriptions of musical terms illustrate the history and the science of music so that the reader should understand just why a violin is harder to learn for the beginner than a guitar or the piano. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to knkow more about music but they should be prepared to read it carefully. He does explain alot about musical notation and things like modes and while it is quite technical you don't need to study it, just pay attention. I believe this could be used as a textbook to supplement the practical study of playing music for the novice and the seerious student.Bravo to Mr. Powell!
Joles on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of the most amusing true books about music that I've ever read. The author goes into a deep enough explanation of terms so that the lay-person isn't bored to tears yet it suits the more knowledgeable musician. The writing is fun and the jokes are great--if directed a little more toward a British sense of humor. As a music teacher, I highly enjoyed the book and I know my non-music friends will enjoy it just as much!
quaintlittlehead on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book gets into the very technical details of how music is organised, not simply by listing out the seemingly arbitrary conventions which govern it, but by explaining them through the principles of physics and mathematics that led to their existence in the first place. As such, the book offers a lot of background knowledge that many well-trained musicians do not know, or at least do not know in full scientific depth. Beginning with the pronouncement that the actual pitches of our current standard notes were decided on by a committee early in the 20th century, and that they differed from region to region before that--something that was news to me, and will forever change the way I listen to Mozart--, Powell explores why exactly the intervals between pitches are exactly what they are, why the pentatonic scale was hit upon by so many different cultures as a convenient scale to tune to (because those are the pitches that harmonics of strings will naturally give you), who calculated the necessary frequency differences for our modern 12-step notation system, how far apart the holes in a flute have to be, what makes the decibel system so silly, and more. With a rather Pythonesque wit, the author hits on topics that answer questions I now feel sheepish for never having thought to ask and raises more of them in the curious music-lover's mind (I find myself now wondering exactly why, in terms of frequencies, a tritone sounds bad, and why a harp has an upward bend in the neck if the strings should be decreasing in length as you ascend). Powell is at his best when he pokes holes in seemingly unanswerable aesthetic questions, citing research refuting the association of moods with specific keys and offering an actual physiologically based definition of what makes some sounds music and others not. I lost a bit of interest near the end of the book when he began expounding more of the music theory aspects of pitches and rhythm, with less reference to the physics and maths behind them, but maybe that's just because those are the bits I already know. If you loathe numbers and want to keep your head in a dream-world where good music is solely defined by the fact that you like it, this is probably not the book for you, but if you're remotely interested in how things work, whether you're an avid music buff or not, this is a jolly good read, and far more concrete than similar attempts by authors like Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin. You could win quite a few admiring glances at cocktail parties, or get a few more Trivial Pursuit questions right, after reading this one.
IamAleem on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
'How Music Works" is very well researched and presented in a clear and concise manner with some fun facts and humor to boot along with a bonus CDIf you like music you will simply LOVE this book..Also don't forget to recommend this to your audiophile/musician friends as well..I recently discovered the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross and his books on 'Music' and feel that this is an excellent companion to the aforementioned worksSimply Put, this is another excellent title by the EPIC Publisher Little, Brown and Co
gtvalentine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How Music Works is a fantastic introductory book for the musically interested, but otherwise musically uneducated reader. John Powell writes in a breezy conversational style, never talking down to his reader. He discusses the very basics of acoustics, melody harmony, rhythm, and instrumentation. I think he does a marvelous job tying everything up into a complete package that an interested lay reader should appreciate. As a trained musician, I found myself wanting more from the book, but I cannot fault it for that. Music - and more specifically music theory and acoustics - can seem an arcane field to those who are interested but have had no training. I will certainly recommend this book to people I know who tell me that they'll never be able to understand music. How Music Works should be able to set the initiated reader on to the path of learning, well, how music works.
d_jungle More than 1 year ago
I love music in most forms, am learning to listen to other genres of music as David suggested.  However, the author's explanation or breakdown of terminology really makes this book a Must read.  As he states in the beginning, music aficionados and musically challenged individuals will understand and Appreciate music.  He explain things in Plain English, where the reader does Not need a mathematical degree, physics degree, and so on.  His examples are logical and simple to follow, while using everyday scenarios.  Thank you David!!
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ladybugOH More than 1 year ago
Service was GREAT and both books were WONDERFUL!! More than i expected.
bridget3420 More than 1 year ago
I have been obsessed with music for as long as I can remember. I've always wondered how music works and John's books really opened my eyes to the complexity of music. I learned so much and because of that, I have an even greater appreciation for the music making process. How Music Works would make the perfect holiday gift for the music lover in your life.
Brian Wang More than 1 year ago
best one ever
Chris Han-Adebekun More than 1 year ago
I have perfect pitch. I have won international commpetitions from around the world