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The joy of musical goose-bumps

Why We Love MusicJohn Powell’s ‘Why We Love Music’ is a thoroughly engaging journey through neuroscience, psychology, trivia and thoughtful appreciation into our relationship with the repetitive aural patterns and variations of rhythm, tone, pitch and timbre that we might end up describing as ‘music’

It matters not what kind of music opens you up to delight or makes you back off in whimpering distaste, some kind of ‘music’ is likely to powerfully affect us all, and what pushes your ‘like’ or indeed your ‘dislike’ button is likely to reveal something about your individual psychology as much as it might give clues to your age and from whence you came. The sound of music, like the food in our kitchens can spell home, and take us immediately into our past.

Powell is a most engaging writer, and I’m afraid, shallow as I am, I love it when people give me lots of nuggetty things to think about wrapped up in an attractive coating.

Powell is informative, references meticulously, provides some more challenging appendices for musicians and those with more of a grasp of the technicalities and mechanics than I have, and offers all the resources to help those who want drier and more detailed information, find those sources. If you want to find those resource papers with such thrilling titles as “An experience Sampling Study of Emotional Reactions to Music: Listener, Music and Situation” Powell’s footnotes and chapter headings will surely be invaluable.

The lighter-weights amongst us may well be happy enough to have Powell explain to us that, for example, one might hear the ‘fear’ music when it is played for one of James Bond’s enemies, and not have our ‘fear’ activated, but, when that music arrives for one of Bond’s lady loves, we might indeed become fearful for her. Even more, we might appreciate (I did) Powell’s flip humour reminding us :”This is usually a perfectly justifiable fear, as the average life-expectancy of a James Bond girlfriend is about thirty-five minutes” Powell does not reference that quip, but it did make me laugh.

He took me, in a spirit of adventurous investigation, out of my own musical comfort zone, as he does reference various examples as illustrations of points he is making, so a simultaneous read and navigate to a website to hear a soundtrack was very pleasurable.

Below is my first ever experience of Elbow, courtesy of Powell’s move me out of obvious comfort zone

The Birds – Elbow from Dan on Vimeo.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters examining how speech patterns morph into music/singing, and, indeed just why music gets soft-wired and hard-wired in to Importance for us – for example, the musical quality of what might be called ‘Motherese’ – the singing quality adults employ talking to small babies, the rhythmical patterns of lullabies, repetitions of phrases. Babies then pattern in their babbling back to adults, there is a satisfaction in the familiarity of repeating phrases, a kind of safety in the familiar. Here is a fascinating clip Powell references of a study done on how the musicality in normal speech might become experienced as song

This is a gorgeous, engaging book. Dr John Powell has a PhD in physics, and lectures in physics; he is also a classically trained musician and lectures in musical acoustics. He is also (MOST importantly for this reader) clearly a brilliant communicator, and someone with an infectious joy in his specialist subjects. And writes like a dream.

I have also had great fun in some of the suggested practical exercises, for example ‘re-hearing’ a clock ticking as tick tock tick, rather than tick tock, to demonstrate the mind’s ability to impose subjective patterns and rhythms. Sound stupid? – oh, just read the book, Powell will encourage you into musical games

Along the way he explores experiments in tapping into the healing power of music, particularly linked with neurological conditions – some of this has of course been very well explored. He also explodes a few myths about extreme musical talent, as further experiments and studies in statistics show the extremely musically talented tend to be those who practiced, from the start, far more than the less dedicated amongst us ever did. So…..my new dream on……..I could have been a musical contender, if only I hadn’t been so lazy………….His depressing statistic, for the easily distracted who lack persistence is that it generally takes about ten thousand hours of practice to become a professional musician. I assume he is talking classical here, rather than the three chord bash.

And here is Powell being instructive about rubato (not to mention a bit rude, about that much loved piece Asturias, by Albeniz) I’m even minded now to get the earlier book, How Music Works

Later in the book he begins to deconstruct music, going into more detail on how we hear, what we hear, what is meant by notes, and into various techniques, and their effects within a piece. In fact, there is a definite progression from the very easily graspable, at the start, to ‘stuff’ needing more thinking about. We started with a simple scale, and ended up with Wagnerian symphony! (Just to get back into my comfort zone!)

What an engaging, as well as what an informative, read!

Powell’s book will be published on the 5th of May in hardback and digital. I was lucky enough to get offered it through Amazon Vine UK. For some strange reason it will only be available in the UK on digital or Audible. I would not suggest Audible as there are various diagrams which make sense of the more technical aspects in the latter half of the book. Musicians and physicists may not need the diagrams; the moderately innocent of such matters, like myself, embraced them like a life-raft

There also appears to be some confusion between the publisher and Amazon websites John Powellas to whether this is to be called Why We Love Music or Why You Love Music. I suggest a compromise and that the book is called Why You and We Love Music, to avoid fisticuffs!

Powell is also at pains to point out that he is, sadly, not THAT John Powell – there is a film composer of the same name to whom he pays nice deference. I’m perfectly enchanted with THIS John Powell and hope the other John Powell also pays nice deference to this on

Why We Love Music Amazon UK
Why We Love Music Amazon USA