John Powell



How Music Works is available from bookstores and online retailers including Amazon.


how music works


how music works - the story behind the book 



Back in 2000, at the age of 45, I decided to go back to university to finish my musical education by doing a master’s degree in composition. Unfortunately, just after I had handed my credit card over, I was told that the degree would require me to write a thesis as well as a lot of music.


Having trained as a scientist I had already written a couple of theses – and I wasn’t looking forward to writing another. I decided that the easiest way of getting the thing out of the way was to write something about the science behind music.  


So I went down to the library and stated reading books on musical acoustics. It was quite a revelation – the books were well written and full of fascinating stuff, but they tended to be tough reading – full of graphs, maths and written music.


I started making notes to make it easier to understand – and then I got the idea of translating the whole subject into chatty, non-technical English with no graphs, maths or written music. Every Monday evening for couple of years I would retire to my desk for three hours or so and write about scales, chords and vibrating strings.

Then, at about ten o’clock, I would phone for a takeaway curry and sit down to watch an episode of Morse (I had the full box set and there is nothing more relaxing than watching Oxford academics being either murdered or arrested).



Amongst other things, I wrote a chapter on loudness and another on perfect pitch, and once I was happy with them I posted them off to several music magazines. My idea was to give the chapters, one at a time, to a magazine, free of charge. Then, when some interest had been generated, I would bind the chapters together into a self-published book and make a few quid on the side.


I sat by the letter box waiting for a response from the magazines.

One by one my chapters were returned – unloved and unwanted.


Time for plan B.


I found myself an agent, who agreed that How Music Works was a book that people might enjoy.


Once Penguin got involved my life was turned upside down – now it was every evening – no Morse (a bad thing) and seven take away curries a week (a good thing).  Penguin encouraged publishers from other countries and, before I knew what was going on, the book was coming out in nine languages.


So – I will be forever grateful to those cruel magazine editors who rejected plan A – and also to the Taste of India restaurant for delivering all those curries…