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John Powell – Why We Love Music review

Part science, part music theory, fully entertaining read.

Why We Love Music

John Powell’s Why We Love Music is an account of the science of music. There is a persistent school of thought that examining art critically removes the mystery of it and somehow reduces its majesty; Keats’s “unweave a rainbow” was a dig at Newton’s scientific explanation of light. It was nonsense from Keats, and the same could be said about any attempts to level the same criticism at Powell’s fascinating narrative. He brings to life music theory and offers some insight as to why we are moved by music, what it means to us, and how different musical styles find special places in our hearts.

Told through the voice of an upbeat and cheerful narrator, Why We Love Music covers the journey we take with music throughout our lives, and does so with gentle persuasion. Ever wondered why the music you fell in love with as an adolescent sticks with you for the rest of your days? Ever noticed that our tastes broaden as we age? Ever noticed that we enjoy repetition in music? Ever wondered why particular notes, or the end of a sequence can bring on goose-bumps, or even tears? Powell’s book takes these phenomena and gives explanation. There’s also a certain amount of debunking that goes on, such as ‘bad science’ newspaper articles claiming that music can make you more intelligent, and that there’s very much separating musical greatness from ineptitude other than passion and a heck of a lot of practice.

The book touches on social sciences research. The effect music (and more specifically, different genres of music) has upon our shopping habits, dining habits, and our willingness to part with our hard-earned cash proves an intriguing segment, and powerfully argues that we are strongly yet often subliminally influenced by music.

We also enjoyed discovering how approximate music is, which is presumably why different recordings of the same scores can have such profoundly contrasting effects on us. Much that we may think top cellists, for example, are entirely precise in their rendering of each note, Powell recounts research that shows their work is full of imperfections. Moments such as these succeed in surprising the reader, and it’s a key strength of the book.

There are a few weaknesses. Any tome of course can’t cover everything, but there are a few glaring omissions, such as the importance of the middle 8 in compositions, and why they thrill us. The author’s voice becomes a touch intrusive at times. They are meant as humorous asides, but the narrative is peppered heavily enough with them to become occasionally distracting.

Powell wisely leaves a more technical analysis to the closing chapters, which essentially comprise indices, under the title ‘Fiddly details’. They will be of interest to students of music, since they delve further into timbre, harmony and key, but the casual reader may prefer to finish reading prior to the final section. Overall, Why We Love Music fascinates as much as it entertains, and sheds some much-needed light on the subject matter.

Book Publisher: John Murray Release Date: 5th May 2016


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