Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Science of Music - From Rock to Bach

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What is a musical note? This is one of the deceptively simple questions asked and answered by John Powell in his fascinating book, "How Music Works."

It's an easy question, you might think. A musical note, as created by a musical instrument or a voice, is determined by the frequency of the sound waves produced. Wrong, that would be the note's pitch. Well, one can surely form a note by simultaneously depressing several related piano keys. Nope, that's not a note; that's a chord. A note, the basic building block of all music, is a repeating pattern of sound waves (which distinguishes it from the chaotic sound waves of nonmusical noises). It "consists," Powell says, "of four things: a loudness, a duration, a timbre and a pitch."

Starting with the four properties of a note, the author, who is both physicist and musician, uses easy-to-follow, conversational language to lead the reader into the science of music. He explains every common musical term, from "key" to "bar" to "scale." He differentiates a concerto from a sonata and shows how composers use chords to create harmonies. He brings his explanations to life with a wide range of examples. For instance, a certain type of chord called an arpeggio is found in "Hotel California," by the Eagles, while a complex harmony called counterpoint was used by Bach in his concertos.

After explaining the meaning of musical terms, Powell interprets those strange-looking symbols found in a piece of sheet music. It is amazing that after a few hours of Powell's explanations, a musical novice like me can begin to read music. And for those who would like to use their newly acquired musical education to make their own music, Powell offers advice on how to choose an appropriate first instrument. Violins are too hard; pianos are easier.

For those who approach music more passively, Powell provides a chapter on how and where to listen to music. Instead of spending $75,000 on "a special listening room," he advises us to install our equipment in a normal room, then move the speakers around to get the best sound. He also answers a question that is being passionately debated by audiophiles all over the world: "Are vinyl records better than CDs?" The answer, he says, is no. Those favoring vinyl are victims of "technology nostalgia."

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