Book Review: How Music Works

Aim 3 of 2023 is to read more. I’m going to post reviews as I go. March is still Q1 but this does feel like a very late start.

I’ve picked up the guitar again after 12 years away. I wanted a refresher on the things I’d forgotten. So I picked up How Music Works by John Powell.

How Music Works by John Powell

It tells a very neat story from the foundations of “what is sound” all the way to selecting a key for your composition and thoughts on audiophiles.

There is however, a problem. I am not the target reader. I’ve sat classical guitar & music theory exams. I also have a Physics degree. A lot of this book is a repetition on things I know already. I didn’t need a refresher on waves, interference, or the weirdness of measuring volume. This meant I was focused on the writing style which really didn’t gel for me. The abundance of non-sequiturs and humour is mentioned in other reviews as a positive. When I’m rushing through a chapter because I’m hunting for some new bit of lore it’s grating.

The last few chapters were on material I hadn’t covered before or had forgotten. The history of temperament, modes, and composing for orchestras. Here I was much more on board with the conversational writing style. Especially the section on why/how you pick a key for your compositions, this was a topic I’d wondered about but never formed the question properly in my mind.

A small nit pick is that John’s editor really could have pushed for the singular They. A few sentences ended up feeling really clunky, especially in 2023. We must give them some slack as this book was published in 2010 (when I was still playing the guitar the first time around). Times do be a-changin.

For balance I must call out the beautiful cover art. I have what I believe is the UK paperback. The colourful, punchy, but clean style is very pleasing. Much more so than the more common cover with the headphones.

Would I recommend it? If you’re a true layperson, absolutely! This is an ideal start for an adult beginner, reading the chapter on picking your instrument before you purchase something is probably a very smart idea. If you’re me from a month ago when I ordered it? That’s a maybe-to-no, but you’ll have a hard time finding a better summary.