Thursday, 18 August 2016

Thinking Musically - review

It's difficult to know exactly how to classify Thinking Musically. It isn't a science of music book, though it does have a small amount of scientific content. Nor can it really be considered a basic music theory book, given it never mentions musical notation. I can best describe it as a book that gives a feel for what's going on in music without getting technical, so the reader can get think through, for instance, why some music sounds happy and other pieces sad, simply as a result of choosing a particular 'palette' of notes.

We start with some basics on the nature of sound and pitch. These are illustrated using wiggly side to side (roughly sinusoidal) waves to represent sound waves. Uri Bram and Anupama Pattabiraman qualify this by saying 'This is the easiest way to imagine what a wave looks like, even if it's not 100% accurate.'  That's fine, but it really wouldn't have been hard to explain that in reality sound is a compression wave, with alternating squashed up and thinner air, so the model waves they use could be considered a picture of higher and lower pressure areas.

The tone throughout the slim volume (I read it in a couple of hours) is light and conversational. This mostly works well, though when the authors resort to humour it can be rather wince-making, as when they suggest twanging a rubber band repeatedly close to someone's ear, then say 'What, you actually did it? We were kidding. Oh dear.' Oh dear.

I liked the way that Bram and Pattabiraman emphasised the importance of relative pitch, illustrating it with a coffee shop cups metaphor, and showing how, for example, semitones cannot be equally spaced but depend on that relative spacing. To be honest, though, I got a bit bored by the lengthy description of how the notes fit on a piano keyboard and how they are named. However, things got interesting again once we got onto scales, especially when exploring the way that different but consistent spacing sequences separate major and minor, though why the authors had to drag the obsolete tonic sol-fa system in, I'm not sure - it only served to obscure.

Something that came through strongly in this section was a need for wider context. Almost all references were to pop music, which led to the suggestion that almost all Western music uses the conventional scales - but this ignores pretty well all serious music pre-Bach (when, for example, in one period music was often effectively written in a different key in the same piece depending on whether the line is ascending or descending) and much serious music written post 1900 when traditional scales are often ignored. In fact, all the way through I felt I'd like a bit more. For instance in page 75 there's a reference to the tritone interval, considered the work of the devil (figuratively) in the Middle Ages, but just 7 pages earlier, the authors highlight the striking second note of the song Maria from West Side Story, without pointing out that the interval that makes it sound so dramatic... is a tritone.

All in all, this is a really interesting little book (perhaps a little overpriced for its length), presenting music basics in an interestingly different way, but it could do with a little filling out with context - both in musical history and, perhaps, some more stories about composers and musicians much as a good popular science book might tell us about scientists - to keep the interest going.

Thinking Musically is available from and

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