How Music Works John Powell

Sep 11, 2014 review (read between Aug 6, 2014 – Sep 11, 2014)

1st reading read review on Goodreads

The subtitle of the book, ‘The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds,’ prompted me to pick this book up in hopes that it would provide me an introductory lesson on the physical and psychological aspects of music and how it does its magic on us emotionally. The book certainly covers most, if not all, of what one might consider to be important aspects of music: instruments, harmony, loudness, major and minor keys, scales, rhythm, tempo, and more… but the book covers them all from the physics angle.

Granted, Powell has a PhD in physics so I’m sure that he knows what he’s talking about when he talks about vibration frequencies and the sone system of loudness measurement. He also writes with a good amount of sarcastic and dry humor to keep things interesting despite all the physics talk. He also does a good job covering some of the basic tenants of music theory. At the end of the day, however, I can’t get over the fact that he spends most of the book talking about how the decibel system works and how the sound waves add up to form patterns to make pleasing sounds, and a few pages at most to talk about how all those sound waves affect us psychologically and emotionally. To be honest, I’m not certain that he talked about it at all.

Given the confusion and contradictory claims on the effects of music on an individual’s mood, neural development, and everything in between, maybe it’s only fair that Powell didn’t broach the topic. That field of discussion does seem to be soft science, at best. It’s unfortunate, however, that Powell seems to skirt the issue completely and doesn’t acknowledge or mention its existence. As someone who would argue that the emotional and psychological impact music has is the primary factor that makes it relevant to us as human beings, I find the omission to be quite unfortunate. As it stands, I feel like the only mention of people as “listeners of music”, as opposed to biological systems that receive sound waves through convenient organs called ears, is in the last chapter of the book where he advises that they shouldn’t spend over $3000 on home audio systems. Thanks for the pro tip, Dr. Powell.

If you want an introductory crash course in the physics of sound and music, as well as some music theory background, I suggest checking out this book. If you want to know more about the psychology of music, ignore the subtitle and move on.