Magazine article The Spectator

Learning to Listen

Magazine article The Spectator

Learning to Listen

Article excerpt

How Music Works

by John Powell

Particular Books, £12.99, pp. 264,

ISBN 9781846143151

How Music Works opens with a blizzard of reassurances. First, John Powell establishes his ordinary-bloke credentials by means of a slightly tortured analogy between many people's attitude to music ('pleasure without understanding') and the time he went to the chip shop after the pub and realised he couldn't tell the Chinese owner exactly what gravy was. He then lays out in some detail what prior knowledge of musical theory, maths and science we'll need for what follows: absolutely none. The message, in other words, is a firm 'Don't panic'. This might be a book of musicology by a classically trained composer and physics professor, but it's aimed squarely at the novice.

And from there, Powell proves as good as his word. At times, you do get the impression that he'd love to let rip with some of the 'spoon-bendingly complicated maths' he refers to in passing, but in the end he heroically restrains himself. The tone remains resolutely chatty throughout. The little jokes continue to pile up - even if their degree of hilarity is distinctly variable. His almost pathological anxiety not to alienate his readers means that nothing is allowed to go unexplained, from melody ('a string of notes of different pitches') to a tuning fork ('a specially shaped piece of metal which produces a specific note when you hit it').

Fortunately, the longer all this goes on, the more two rather unexpected things start to happen. The first is that Powell's desperation for us to grasp what he's got to say becomes increasingly endearing. OK, so he often resembles a trendy teacher wanting the kids to like him - but only, you feel, because he really, really wants us to understand harmony, timbre, rhythm and the rest.

Second, and more important, we notice how deftly he's leading us deeper and deeper into the subject, and in just the painless way he promised. …

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