Book Review: How Music Works

I was having breakfast with my son this morning in the mall when I got distracted by all the noise around me. I was reading a book and I so wished there were quiet corners reserved just for those who'd appreciate a quiet meal but nope, my desire for tranquility was beleaguered by screams, loud chatters and guffaws as wells as shouts of anger of a mother to her poor daughter. I don't blame them for the cacophony. It's a public place after all.

I remembered then that I have just downloaded an app in to my iPhone, Cello Classic. I popped on my earphones and started listening to it. The problem that arose next was that I could not continue reading. I was totally mesmerized by what I heard. It was Bach's Suites for Solo Cello No.1 Prelude. It was so beautiful. I tried to go back to reading, but it was a lost cause. I closed the book and closed my eyes to just listen. I was thinking that if I were in a concert hall listening to that, the surroundings, the sound, the acoustics, the emotions would be enough to make me weep.

It was then that I remembered coming across this book that I have put in my wish list.

How Music Work by John Powell
A listener's guide to harmony, keys, broken chords, perfect pitch and the secrets of a good tune.

When I found it though, the subtitle that got me attracted was different: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethovan to the Beatles and Beyond. I wanted to know what made me feel like weeping when I listened to Bach in MacDonald's.

I checked and confirmed that both books are the same one, and bought an electronic copy. It was such an interesting read that I finished it in a day, and I have never had so much fun reading a book in a long, long time.

For one, the writer knows his stuff, and he writes with humour, though I feel some of it is kinda corny but found it so hilarious that he referred to Beethovan's Fifth Symphony as "the one which goes Da Da Da Daah! Da Da Da Daah!".

I followed his advice in reading the book with access to YouTube. I had my iPhone fitted with my X-Mini speaker and listened to the examples he quoted. I found some of the most amazing music ever written, even one piano piece that was named The Devil's Staircase written by György Ligeti that was quoted as an example of what he called "really anxious chords". It is not an easy piece to take in but it is definitely a piece to behold.

I am not really a musician, though I do know some basics after attempting to study the piano for several years in my younger days. The thing is I learnt quite a lot of things reading this book. I just found out you can actually play Amazing Grace by just using the black keys on a piano. Never knew that. And now I know how those 12 notes in a harmonic scale came about. And I learnt what London and the year 1939 and perfect pitch have to do with each other.

Today is a good book day.



  1. may your 'loan' me your ebook? Yes, music always fascinates mathematically, how frequencies of a log2 scale and induce emotions universally in humans, whatever our tongue. And combinations consisting can create 'happy' (major) chords and 'sad' minor chords and all in between. Can only conclude that our minds are wired by the Creator to respond this way to music.

    1. Is that you Chor Hon? :)
      I would love to loan you the book but I did not get it for Kindle, which I know does allow for a 14-day loan out. I got it for my Kobo reader, which uses ePub. I am not sure how to get it out to you, unless you can figure it out.

  2. i don't use kindle, i use ePub and the other variety of ebooks. I can convert them to my suitable format anyway. So just email over lah

  3. Having purchased it via, i don't have the ePub file though I think there is a way to get it from my PC, you think?


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