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Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: How Music Works by John Powell

Since I first learned about things like tuning and temperament, the cognitive processing of rhythm, and the perception of timbre, I have had thoughts of writing some sort of universal how-music-works book. Music is usually taught through cultural context (sometimes without revealing this angle), and little to no mention of universal perceptual and cognitive facts. Clearly, however, I am not alone in having this idea of writing some universal music book. John Powell's 2010 book How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond has a same main title that is included in the subtitle of the book I previously reviewed by Philip Ball from just earlier in 2010. These two books are far from alone in this burgeoning arena of authors hoping to enlighten the world to their grand universal insights on the nature of music. Unfortunately, these attempts all fall short of what I would like to see. If I had the same standards as John Powell, I would probably have already written my submission to the field. But I'm trying to learn from the attempts of others first and/or to find existing books I can truly recommend without qualification (Music and Memory: An Introduction by Bob Snyder being among the best I've yet found).

It is interesting to note the stark contrast between John Powell's book and Philip Ball's. On the one hand, they could have swapped covers and titles with no impact. They both cite David Huron's superb book Sweet Anticipation, just one of many indications that the authors have overlapping background understanding. They both discuss tuning, physics, style, and psychology. They both are biased toward Western traditions even as they attempt to be otherwise. Yet Ball's book is dense, full of complex discussion and examples covering an immense range of topics especially cultural and historical and cognitive issues, and its audience is probably college students seriously wading into these subjects. Powell's book, however, is a light jokey volume glossing over the surface of a smaller set of topics focusing on physics and practical realities about instruments and technology; it is for a truly lay popular audience.

The best parts of How Music Works cover (though mostly in only simple introductory style):
  • The arbitrariness of the standard tuning of A440
  • How perfect pitch is learned through very young music training and doesn't really have much relation to musicianship aside from the correlated value of young training (and, of course, how perfect pitch is now connected to the arbitrary A440 standard, but historically was not)
  • The dubiousness of specific keys (e.g. C vs D) having distinct emotions
  • how the vibration of strings gives rise to the harmonic series (particularly clear and well-illustrated for a static book)
  • basic instrument acoustics, how instruments work (though he unfortunately omits pitched inharmonic instruments like bells and gamelon gongs)
  • the general basics of timbre
  • understanding loudness perception and the screwy dB measurement system (in this particularly well-written section, Powell advocates convincingly for sones as a superior alternative to decibels)
  • how microphones and speakers work (clear but extremely brief and lacking detail)
  • how different media work and why dogmatic ideas such as vinyl discs being superior to CDs are nonsense (though admittedly some recordings on CDs were remastered in inferior ways to their original vinyl releases, that is not inherent to the media)
Powell also has some debatable but good points about comparing popular and classical styles, about improvisation, and about music being just a skill anyone can learn rather than some mystical gift.

Unfortunately, the book is more problematic when it comes to explanations of pitch. Powell is not hesitant to just proclaim things good and bad without explanation. He describes a poorly made souvenir bamboo flute with equally-spaced holes as horrendously out of tune, as though anyone would clearly hear how terrible it is. While his point holds about evenly-spaced holes not producing evenly spaced tones, I find the sound of the flute to be interesting and of musically valid potential despite being exotic to any tuning system I am used to. To teach about the psychology of music perception, we need to describe how we experience different tunings, not just label them right and wrong.

Powell makes a biased and altogether mistaken assumption that the features of the 12-tone equal tempered system have always been the goal for all musicians. He goes on to say basically that Europeans found the solution to tuning in the mid-18th century and that's that. He even attempts a sort of self-deprecating humor by berating a British piano company for failing to move to the new system until well into the 19th century. He suggests that Pythagoras was aiming for modern equal temperament and just got it wrong. There's even a remark implying that transposing and modulating songs to different keys is a universal goal (in reality, the majority of cultures and music throughout history does not have this goal at all).

Powell has a tendency to make vague claims with the apparent assumption that readers will just take his word for things and just think it sorta made sense. He says all pianos are tuned the same now and to simple equal temperament (not quite true, ask any piano tuner). He claims that steady drones as accompaniment to singing were sung as the next step after simple melodies alone, and that this happened in some vague ancient maybe even prehistoric time (these claims are dubious, the first drones were probably instruments, and we have basically no evidence about the details of singing in ancient times).

Powell teaches the pentatonic scale as a universal foundation and tunes it according to Pythagorean chaining (meaning each note is a 2:3 ratio perfect fifth from the previous in the system, then adjusted for octaves). But then, Powell gives just intonation ratios like 4:5 and 3:5 as the tuning for the resulting scale. This is simply wrong. The implication is that musicians would tune one way to derive the scale but then either re-tune to get the simpler harmonies or that the scale works by approximating these simpler harmonies. These are totally questionable claims, and Powell doesn't even acknowledge them. Instead, he appears to suggest that (e.g.) 1.5 x 1.5 x 1.5 = 3.3333... (it really equals 3.375, and these may be very close but the difference is musically quite audible, a difference known as a syntonic comma).

The entire discussion of pitch is basically the minimal showing of some patterns to convince lay readers that the claims are justified — without enough clarity to actually have readers understand the evidence enough to question it or even utilize it in learning.

The section on traditional Western theory (notation, chord names, scales, etc) is unremarkable. Some explanations of chords and scales and rhythms are accurate enough. Nothing here is special or new. Some of it is wrong (he defines the word "harmony" as the progression of chords in a song). Mostly, this section has too much take-my-word-for-it bits, and the result is that real reasons for the patterns and names simply aren't accessibly explained. Readers who already know the Western jargon will get little new here. The biggest problem here is that focusing on the Western notation automatically biases the explanations toward certain things that this book is supposed to be going beyond.

There are many further criticisms I could mention ranging from specific problems with his tuning explanations to the total lack of reference in the book to the contents of the included CD (which is some select explanations of content from the book with narration and sound examples).

Overall, John Powell is clearly motivated in the same way as I am: to take broad scientific insights into music and deliver and new accessible introduction to a general audience. His result is mixed. Like a flashy television documentary, he is more engaging and accessible than many authors. Readers will certainly come away with some new insights and perspective. The overview of instrument acoustics is among the best I've seen. But there are problems here that really deserve better treatment. The whole package feels (like Philip Ball's book I reviewed earlier) like a jumbling together of a bunch of blocks of different quality that don't quite make a grand structure as a unit. Powell should be commended, however, for writing in a very accessible and fun style designed to reach a broad audience.

If you get this book through your local library, it may be worth a read, just keeping in mind the concerns I've presented here.


  1. Hi Aaron, thanks for the nice review! It's too bad that there aren't more books like this from ethnomusicological viewpoints (or perhaps I should say less Eurocentric ones). I just got Huron's Sweet Anticipation - you recommend it?

  2. Thanks for the comment! Yes, I recommend Sweet Anticipation very highly. It's one of the best books I've ever read, very compelling!

    Writing a review of that would be a much greater undertaking.

    My only beef with Huron is that the use of Western Notation still creates a selective focus that excludes certain musical parameters in favor of others. It also blurs over issues like smooth connection between notes, subtle tuning issues, rhythmic nuance etc.

    That said, I think if you recognize Huron's (admitted) emphasis on Western music as his most common source, the book is great, AND it applies globally for the most part. Huron is particularly careful to use non-Western music as much as he can and to clarify when his work is Western-biased.

    My only disagreements with him are on subtle things: He describes syncopation only as an accent on a metric weak point when followed by no accent on the metric strong point. But I think it is more about subjective expectation. If you expect a trochee, there's no syncopation even with an empty following metric point. But this is a subtle issue.

    Sweet Anticipation is the very top book in my list for music theory, followed by Bob Snyder's book.