The Powells

The science of songs: how does music affect your body chemistry?

I spent four years gathering information for my book, Why We Love Music, reading textbooks and papers packed full with phrases like “spectral structure and harmonic syntax” and “amplitudes of transglottal airflow”. Translated into conversational English, the science – I think – is of interest to everyone who loves music (and even those few of us who don’t). For example, experiments have demonstrated that music is extremely effective at curing insomnia; that shoppers spend more money in stores playing classical music; and that communal singing helps humans to bond with each other by releasing oxytocin into our system - the same chemical we experience during sex or breast-feeding.

In “Why You Love Music,” John Powell, a physicist who has also studied musical composition, offers an array of answers that mainly reflect his scientific background. He conveys some basic musical information painlessly, including tuning and scales, the construction of melodies, and elements of timbre and key. His writing is chatty and unpretentious; he is informal and down-home, at times quite funny. If you have ever felt intimidated by music and its terminology of whole and half steps, scales and chords, this book will put you at ease. – Peter Pesic, Wall Street Journal (£)

Research has revealed that music holds the keys to your body’s pharmacy. Photograph: Simon Frazer/SPL/Getty Images