How Music Works and All That Jazz


Time signatures and “cut time” have nothing to do with wage and hour matters.  A metronome has nothing to do with inner city gardening.  The staff mentioned here is not the one that comforts you and the clefts have nothing to do with maxillofacial surgery.  In a world where 1/16 and 1/32 are commonplace, the metric system is unknown.  The ability to reach an octave has nothing to do with getting felt up at the airport and “improvisation” is not referring to a Cajun‘s ingenious use of duct tape.

In 1939, while France and England were declaring war on Germany and Germany was invading Poland, a meeting took place in London that affects something most people have done every day since.  What composers hear when they write music and what listeners hear years later was standardized when a committee met in London to agree on how notes should sound.

Dr. John (not the one from New Orleans) Powell has a masters degree in music composition and a PhD in physics. He has taught musical acoustics and physics in the U. K. and Sweden.  Just as important for the readers, he’s not bad at English composition either.  How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond is his charming effort to deal with the topics mentioned previously in this article as well as many more.

With chapter titles such as “Weighing Up Scales”, “I Got Rhythm”, and “Harmony and Cacophony”, Dr. John cleverly guides the reader through a minefield of potentially dull and boring topics.  Regardless of our level of skill with an instrument or singing, Powell’s conversational tone helps us become better listeners and challenges us to expand our horizons by embracing genres new to us.

My favorite chapter is “Making Music” in which he covers how music is composed, what conductors do, and improvisation.  While improvisation is frequently associated with jazz, it is actually found in most, if not all, genres.  Simple stated, improvisation is “making it up as you go along.”

A bonus CD accompanies the book and illustrates many of the points discussed.  Three of the ten tracks on the CD were of particular interest: “How to get different sounds from a guitar string,” “How to bring tears to the eyes of the audience” and one on identifying instruments from their sounds.


Please click the book cover image to read more about FCEtier and his novels.

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