Music Media Review Print



Understanding the Math and Science of Music

May 11, 2011 - Williamsburg, MA:


John Powell: How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond. New York, Boston, & London: Little Brown and Company, © 2010, ISBN 978-0-316-09830-4, Pp. vi + 266, incl. 1 CD, 27:55, $24.99.

If, like me, you are an avid lover of music but not a professionally or even "amateur-ly"-trained instrumental musician, you are probably somewhat confused about a lot of aspects of music and musical scores. You may not know how the notes add up and understand how there can be 12 notes in an octave – doesn't "oct" mean eight, as in "octet," like Mendelssohn's for strings, Op. 20, or "octopus"? I suspect that you don't understand the scientific reasons why the sounds are pleasant and you love them, or why A is tuned to 440 Hz. Then this is the book for you. It's not "music for dummies," but it explains things in a readily understandable fashion with accompanying illustrations, all in a pleasant manner without "talking down." You might even find yourself reading along so easily that you sense the content is not sinking in as much as you'd like it to.

Powell is a trained classical guitarist who also holds a Masters in composition and a Ph.D. in physics, which he has taught at the Universities of Nottingham (where he lives) in England and Lulea in Sweden; he has taught musical acoustics at Sheffield University in England.

The titles of the chapters are themselves instructive: "1) So, What Is Music, Anyway?, 2) What Is Perfect Pitch and Do I Have It?, 3) Notes and Noises, 4) Xylophones and Saxophones: Same Notes but Different Sounds, 5) Instrumental Break, 6) How Loud Is Loud?, 7) Harmony and Cacophony, 8) Weighing Up Scales, 9) The Self-Confident Major and the Emotional Minor, 10) I Got Rhythm, 11) Making Music, 12) Listening to Music." The 5-part Appendix is entitled "Fiddly Details"; it is followed by a 4-part brief Bibliography, Acknowledgements, and a 4-page fine-print 3-column Index. You can already perceive that humor is in attendance at this lecture and demonstration, and not a small amount of it is self-deprecating. Because he's a Brit, some of it involves visits to pubs, their fare, and their consequences. The opening chapter contains a 10-page road map for what follows, defines some basic terms, and sets forth some commonly accepted parameters of Western Music. His style is very conversational, direct, and personable; on page 2, he even invites readers to contact him at his e-mail address if they have questions.

Powell uses analogies with simple things that everyone understands to explain the principles and make a lot of his points crystal clear. They are accompanied by drawings, black and white photos, and tables, many with humorous captions, that repeat the fact or principle concerned. To illustrate the spacing of the 12 notes of an octave, for example, he draws the "…thirteen-string John Powell Ugly Harp which covers one octave in equal, semitone steps…," which he uses throughout chapter 9, by far the longest at 40 pages.

Along the way, he clarifies some mysteries and dispels a number of persistent myths, including those about major scales always being upbeat and minor ones inherently sad, and about vinyl recordings being superior to CDs, even when pristine without any wear, for example. He chooses two simple melodies - "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" and "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" - as points of reference throughout but also refers to other familiar tunes to illustrate various principles. He discusses concert hall acoustics and home music systems end even MP3 reproduction to provide the basic information. The text is not encyclopedic or exhaustive but gives representative generalizations: he does not explain virtually every Italian musical term for tempi, for example (but a good 1-volume dictionary of music can complete the picture). The accompanying CD contains 10 tracks of spoken (by Powell) explanations and musical demonstrations (played by him) of various things discussed in the text with specific references to the chapter involved. One senses that he had great fun writing the book.

Even if, when you have finished reading this book, you do not thoroughly know and understand all of the math and science behind music and have not mastered the way sound waves, string vibrations, harmonics, and decibels work, the fine points of key and time signatures, the pentatonic scale, and equal temperament, you will surely know more than you did before you started and you will have been enjoyably entertained along the way, so reading it will have been well worth your while.