Reviews of The How Music Works Series

  • Posted on 2 December 2006 at 4:29pm
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When it was first broadcast, How Music Works, received a number of reviews inculding in The Observer and The Time, The Independent and Time Out.  Below are a transcriptions of a number of them:

Rachel Cooke in the Observer Review Sunday October 29:

Listen up everyone … now we’ll all be able to tell our quavers from our minims

‘It sometimes feels to me as though I can measure out my childhood, not in schools or semi-detached houses, but in piano teachers. Until I was 18 and gave up playing for ever, I changed piano teachers with dazzling frequency. There were several reasons for this. The first was me: I was an awful pianist, lachrymose and deeply lazy (oh, the pathetic pleasure it gives me now to be able to boast to you, without any fear of parental reprisal, that I haven’t practised at all for 20 years). The second was the general weirdness ofSheffield’s piano teaching sorority (for they were all women) circa 1975-1985. Those crazy spinsters! Mostly, though, my apparent fickleness was a cover for the fact that the teacher who was generally agreed to be the city’s best – Miss Dorothy B Gyte – would never agree to take me, no matter how often I ‘auditioned’ in her back parlour. When she did finally relent, I was too old, and too bolshie, to listen to a word she said: ‘Scales? Come off it. I’ve been busy. I didn’t get back from Barry Noble’s Roxy Nite Spot until2am.’ Piano lessons were, just like traipsing round National Trust properties on wet Sundays or struggling to grasp algebra, a trial that, according to my mother, I would one day be grateful for having endured. And the funny thing is, I am grateful, now. That afternoon we spent at Nostell Priory in 1985: to be honest, I still think I’d have been better off at home with Smash Hits. The algebra? I can’t tell you a thing about it, except for its hatefulness. But my piano lessons, for all that I dreaded them, for all that my version of Mozart’s Sonata in C is still as crummy as it ever was (I can only do the andante; anything more speedy, and the ghost of Les Dawson takes over), have stayed with me. It’s not that I play often; I don’t even own a piano. But I do know, without even really thinking about it, the basic drill – like what a tone is, or the difference between a minor and a major key. I regard these diddling crumbs of know-how in the same way I think of my ability to poach an egg. They might not make life any easier, but they do make it better.

All this is in the front of my mind because I’ve just seen a preview of How Music Works, a new Channel 4 series presented by the composer and broadcaster Howard Goodall (it begins on 11 November). In spite of the vague media hum that surrounds it, I came to it expecting the worst. I saw actors in powdered wigs, moody shots ofSalzburg and, for good measure, yet another clip of George Martin explaining why ‘Yesterday’ is a really good song. But I was wrong. Somehow, Goodall and Tiger Aspect, the company which has made the series, have convinced Channel 4 to screen four hour-long programmes which, rather than fretting about the supposedly minute attention span of the audience, actually take the time to impart some real information. For musical novices, as for reluctant piano players, the result is properly enlightening. Goodall relies on music rather than actors and whizzy graphics to do his talking and – wouldn’t you know it? – those semi-tones perform brilliantly. Things fall into place. In one scene he illustrates the flattening of notes in melody by pushing the 16th century ‘Coventry Carol’ up against early blues. Believe me when I tell you that this is thrilling. I could suddenly see myself enjoying, or at least understanding, all kinds of music – folk! world! – that, in the past has had me frantically stuffing cheese into my ears. Patterns formed. In Goodall’s able hands, the familiar (the five notes of the pentatonic scale) grows mysterious, and the mysterious (a Bulgarian folk song) more familiar.

The structure of How Music Works reminds me of a schools education programme from the late 1970s. I mean this as a compliment. Unfamiliar terms – ‘Phrygian’, say – are flashed on screen as they’re explained, which should be, but isn’t, patronising, while Goodall’s delivery, so clear and brisk, holds you in exactly the same way as that of the bearded BBC historians who told us the story of the Battle of Hastings in infant school. The music critic Rupert Christiansen has said he believes How Music Works should be compulsory viewing in schools; now that I’ve seen it, I agree. Like him, I have a feeling – or perhaps it is more of a hope – that this series marks the swell of a sea-change in the importance we attach both to the teaching of music and its appreciation. Lots of things were taken out of education in the 1980s. It wasn’t only milk that Mrs Thatcher and her Normans and Kens snatched; she went after oboe teachers, too, squeezing them from schools like juice from an orange. Now, slowly, this rich booty is being replaced.

Shamefully, it has taken a TV star Jamie Oliver – to reveal to us why domestic science lessons might be quite a good idea. Kitchens are back, at least in theory. How Music Works is so bracingly good that it is just possible that its presenter is about to do the same for those rackety glockenspiels on which, in 1983, I learned my 12-bar blues. If he does, a generation will owe him a great debt. As for you, Miss Dorothy B Gyte, I think of you often – and metaphorically rap my own knuckles.’


Emma Perry in Time Out, November 15-22 2006:

We’re used to seeing informative television programmes about history, art and music, but we’re less used to watching actual theory.  Occasionally it rears its’ head on late night Open University slots – butduring prime-time……on Channel 4? It sounds pretty groundbreaking.  And who’d have thought that what’s essentially a lesson would be so riveting?  Did Howard Goodall get Derren Brown to bend the minds of C4 bosses? ‘Channel 4 should be offering alternatives during prime-time,’says Goodall. ‘I sit down with my family and watch ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘The X Factor’ and – I don’t mean to be pretentious – what comes across is that with anything to do with music, there’s quite a lot to learn.

Goodall’s series starts with melody, explaining that most popular tunes are based on the pentatonic scale, which is common to all cultural groups, even though the Western scale has 12 notes while Chinese and Indian scales have 24.  Crucially, he gives us a visual analogue of the ‘shapes’ of these structures by using his trusty piano and, er, ladders (no he’s not climbing them). Goodall is keen to stress that theory belongs to all music. ‘It’s dangerous to think that all complicated aspects of music belong to classical,’ he says. ‘ There’s not much dissection of popular music, because a lot of people think it will kill the magic; they prefer to think of it as mysterious.  But knowing some of the theory might help us to enjoy all music more.’

What’s great about this series (apart from Goodall’s passion and ability to simplify complicated concepts) is that it creates a level playing field for all music, reminding us that no one form is better than another; there is genius and rubbish in all categories. ‘I like to jump promiscuously from style to style because you’ll find the same techniques in surprising places’ says Goodall.  The series also makes you listen to things with a fresh ear.  When Goodall plays ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ at the end of this weeks’ opener, for example having explained that its’ influences come from all over the place, it suddenly loses all those associations of your dad’s friends in sheepskins sitting around after bible study and trying to get with it (or insert own memory here).

The next three episodes of the series look at harmony, rythm and bass, with Goodall explaining how traditions and quirks have developed.  ‘What would be great is if we could start again with the terminology,’ he says ‘ A lot of it is very misleading.  A semitone isn’t a semi-anything, it’s just a note.  An octave comes from the Latin for eight but is actually 12 semitones.  And the word interval is usually used in association with time passing, rather than space, so it’s an odd term to use.  When scientists made up computer language, they thought about appropriate terminology.  They wanted a word for something that was less than a byte, so they called it a nibble.  It makes sense.’


Caitlin Moran in The Times Monday 20th November:

As if to prove just what you can achieve in an hour, Howard Goodall and his fine How Music Works (Saturday, Channel 4) managed, this week, to run even the dimmest (me) through the mechanics of melody, scale and tone in 60 minutes flat. Pentatonic, Aeloian, Dorian, Diatonic, Phrygian — not only could the viewer finally identify what scale Razorlight operate in before dismissing them as idiots in thermals honking about nothing; but garner a good run in Scrabble, to boot.

Goodall is an engaging host — clever, posh, unafraid to suddenly start singing Christian plainsong in the middle of a sentence, which is always the mark of a superior man. The shared DNA of Tudor song and the blues — it’s all about bending the notes — was revealed with a witty flourish; likewise the observation that the classic Broadway musicals are, by and large, based on Jewish klezmer music. The story of melody and scale between 1400 and 1900 — one where the “landscape widens” with each innovation of scale — was told with the same breathless joy that others would describe the space race, or the development of modern medicine.

And of course, throughout — whether it was the classical exploitation of the diatonic scale, or Vaughan Williams bringing the grandeur of an orchestra to folk music — you were thinking: “Wow! When the Beatles come along in either 200 or 60 years, as the case may be, they’re going to love using all these innovations to write Tomorrow Never Knows andPenny Lane. Paul’s going to freak! Thank God all these other guys put in all the legwork beforehand!”


Caitlin Moran in The Times 11th December:

Planet Earth has been landmark TV — much like, on a smaller scale, Howard Goodall’s How Music Works (Saturday, Channel 4). Really, this series has been so jolly, exciting and informative that they should — and probably will — show it in schools. Having tackled melody, rhythm and harmony, Goodall moved on, this weekend, to bass.

“Bass is music’s youngest sound,” Goodall explained, with his usual, comforting ginger poshness. “It’s only been around for four centuries.” This isn’t because we didn’t have the inclination to write the intro to The Source featuring Candi Staton’s You Got the Love back in AD1200 — it was simply that we didn’t have the technology.

For deep bass sounds, we had to wait for the invention of the church organ — a fact Goodall illustrated by standing in front of the biggest church organ in Europe, which had bass-pipes 64ft in length. The organ — which took up the entirety of one wall in an anonymous cathedral — was incomprehensibly large and ornate, and when activated, it looked rather as if someone was playing a solemn hymn on the unlikely instrument of the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Goodall went on to explain how bass “balances” a piece of music, “like the reflection of a mountain in a lake, or the roots of a tree mirroring the branches”.

He took us through the excitement of contrary motion, and then ramped it up by playing usGoodbye Yellow Brick Roadwhich, as befits a song written by the most famous gay man in the world, is a thrilling, textbook example of “bass inversion”.

How Music Works was a positive credit to the telly, and should be repeated as often as Open All Hours, or the clip where the elephant has a poo on Blue Peter.


Adam Sweeting in The Daily Telegraph 29th November:

The man who makes music sing

Howard Goodall’s irrepressible enthusiasm has made him music teacher to the nation in his TV series.

Ten years ago, Howard Goodall made the first of six series for Channel 4 in which he has tried to make music brighter, sunnier and friendlier for a putative Everyviewer.

His latest offering, How Music Works, brings the process full circle by exploring music’s fundamentals, namely melody, harmony, rhythm and bass. It’s stamped with Goodall’s trademarks of lightly worn erudition and a knack for making unexpected musical connections: his revelation of Stevie Wonder’s debt to Purcell is a corker. advertisement Click to learn more… Underpinning the project is a dose of robust pedagoguery, as Goodall strides across the screen with his portable keyboard, putting obfuscation and arcane terminology to the torch.

“In Western music, almost every word we use is unhelpful,” he argues, taking a break from composing the soundtrack to Rowan Atkinson’s new movie, Bean 2, in hisChelseastudio. He potters about making tea, but this doesn’t stop his torrent of narrative. “An interval, in any other context, means a passage of time,” he continues. “You didn’t want sugar, did you? But in music it’s the gap between two notes. An octave isn’t eight notes, but 12 semitones. The best books about music are highly academic and 500 pages long, and I feel it’s my job to read them and take out the 20 things an ordinary music lover would find fascinating.” Goodall could risk being tagged as “posh clever bloke simplifies music for proles”, a sort of Bamber Gascoigne with a tuning fork, but that’s not quite right.

Though he attended choir school as a boy and later studied music atChristChurch,Oxford, where he established lifelong friendships with the Brit-com brains of Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis, he isn’t cut from typical public-school cloth. His father, who was headmaster of Lord Williams’sComprehensiveSchoolin Thame, Oxfordshire, sent the adolescent Howard to Stowe public school. However, this made Goodall so miserable that he persuaded his father to let him attend Lord Williams’s instead, despite parental concerns that he’d be picked on for being teacher’s son and heir. ‘My memory of public school was of unchecked bullying and people being unpleasant to each other the whole time. Then I got to this comprehensive and people were incredibly friendly. I had a band, I was in the school orchestra, I wrote music for the choir – it made me see that music is immense fun, so why would you not want to do music?”

It’s flabbergasting to meet somebody so enthusiastic about his schooldays, and the experience fired Goodall’s passions for learning about music and communicating his enthusiasm to everybody else. “When I go into a school, I feel really comfortable – it is literally home,” he says, and perhaps his comprehensive schooling helps explain his insistence on treating all music equally, rather than automatically putting classical at the apex of the pyramid. “It’s a two-way process,” he says. “People who like the Zutons could enjoy a much wider arc of music if they could break out of their silo mentality of ‘I’ve got the clothes and the hairstyle and this is the only music I like’. “A lot of people in classical music talk about pop as a kind of noise pollution, and use really aggressive language. But, if they listened to it afresh, they might gain a respect for it.”

Goodall eagerly promotes music education projects such as Wider Opportunities and Music Manifesto, although he’s willing to argue that music teaching inBritainis in far better shape than sceptics claim. “I work in a stratum that’s quite middle-class with a lot of very bright people who went to private schools, and I don’t like the fact that people diss state education as a matter of course. I feel protective towards state schools. “When I toured the country to see what music teaching was like [for a South Bank Show called Musical Nation], the most outstanding music departments I came across were in state schools.” Why does music matter? “We worry about social cohesion, so we ought to be doing the things we can to make us cohere as a society. Music is one of them. I don’t think music makes you a better human being, but it enhances your life enormously.”


Imogen Ridgway in the London Evening Standard 17th November:

Songs in the Key of Life

What does Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love have in common with Auld Lang Syne? Apart from the fact they only get played at New Year’s Eve Parties. And how were Tudor rebels similar to American blues singers? ‘These questions and more’, as they used to say on US comedy Soap are answered by the charming Howard Goodall, back for a new series in which he gently explains the role of melody in music without ever making you feel as if you’re stuck in a boring lecture. It turns out that five notes are key to many musical forms – to illustrate his point, Goodall gets passers – by inGateshead to pick random notes from a bag. When he plays through the resultant tune, he admits it ‘won’t be number one next week’, but points out that it doesn’t sound weird. (Actually, it probably could be number one if he put it on his MySpace page.) Goodall also looks atAmerica’s place in the evolution of modern melody; as settlers arrived, Celtic folk, puritan songs, and negro spirituals influenced new musical forms. He also takes time out from history in order to explain musical staples such as pitch and intervals. The facts are of course fascinating, but it’s Goodall who really makes the show. His charisma and non – patronising delivery place him firmly in the First X1 of non – scary telly experts ( Schama, Blumenthal, Cruickshank in goal). And even if you can’t cope with the education, the programme is packed with singalong tunes.


Mike McKinnon in The Independent on Sunday November 18th:


Lifelong musician Howard Goodall is especially good at explaining music, its properties, its dynamics and its subtleties. This should come as no surprise since, after all, he is one of the country’s most successful composers of TV themes, musicals and choral works. To place his work in a more familiar, popular context, he composed the themes for, among others, Blackadder, Mr Bean, QI, Red Dwarf and The Vicar of Dibley. Those who remember his previous illuminating Channel 4 television series Howard Goodall’s Organ Works, Howard Goodall’s Choir Works and Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs, will not be disappointed with How Music Works. He begins this new four – part series by looking at Melody (still to come are Rhythm, Harmony and Bass). Embarking on a musical journey which spans whole centuries, he examines the link between Tudor England and the Mississippi Delta, and identifies melodic shapes common to all cultures across the world. And, following a trail of diverse musical sources, from Gustav Mahler to Paul Simon, Shaker hymns to Bulgarian folk songs, medieval music to Broadway showtunes, he explains the tricks of the composer’s trade. Among all the sequinned competition it is refreshing to have something so absorbing and instructive to watch on Saturday nights. A winner.


John Dugdale in The Times November 18th:

Howard Goodall is the music teacher you wish you’d had, and his strengths – lucidity, deft choice of examples, openness to an enormous variety of traditions – are as evident in this four – parter as they were in his previous series. Beginning with tonight’s sprint through western musical history taking in the medieval modes, the major-minor system and its disintegration in the last century, it looks at how rhythm, melody and harmony achieve their effects. Efforts are made to disguise the fact that this is a lecture by changing indoor settings and filming Goodall al fresco. This might make sense if the lectures were boring but here it is unnecessary. Using different period – decor backdrops does, however, add to the impact when Charlotte Mobs and Nicola Benedetti are introduced to respectively perform a Handel song and parts of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Goodall’s range of references is as wide as ever, encompassing a Tudor carol, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Broadway hits, blues, soul, folk, pop ballads by Paul Simon and Sting, rock riffs by Led Zeppelin and Coldplay, and songs from Bulgaria China andIndia.


MUST – SEE TV in The NEWS OF THE WORLD November 19th:

Presenter Howard Goodall is like a dream music teacher. He manages to talk engagingly about both Bach and Grandmaster Flash, and can analyse in equal depth Handel’s Zadok The Priest and Stevie Wonder’s Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing. He’s not half bad at playing the keyboard himself either. In this second in a new series of four educational programmes he concentrates on rhythm. Rhythm can give a feeling of tranquility and serenity, but it’s also hypnotic and addictive. It’s what makes us want to tap our feet and get up and dance. The lessons come as the well-spoken Goodall explains words such as pulse, tempo and accent. The fun then takes over when he moves on to syncopation which he describes as ‘music’s red – light district, where rhythm gets loose, playful and mischievous’, and cross – rhythm, which he calls ‘music’s party trick’. He makes connections across ages and continents again, from Brahm’s 19th centuryGermany through Romanian gypsy music to African drumming, ragtime, swing and jazz. He ends tonight’s lesson, though, with a tribute to the extraordinary melting – pot of Cuban dance music, where African, Latin and European styles meet and mix and with the music of the prolific Stevie Wonder in the Seventies. He, too, was then drawing on a whole range of influenes. Bach, Goodall decides, would have approved.


Charlie Brooker in The Guardian December 2nd:

Like you, I’m constantly terrified people might discover just how thick I truly am. Oh, I manage to cloak my abject stupidity most of the time, by self-consciously lobbing words like “diaspora” and “ostensibly” into casual conversation but, nevertheless, it’s always there, lurking in the background, dribbling down its chin. I can hardly recall a moment of my bogstandard comprehensive education: if I close my eyes, all I see are a few sparsely-distributed globules of trivia twinkling feebly in a galaxy of ignorance. When it comes to carefully-considered intellectual analysis, my brain’s about as much use as a dented tray. I might as well think through my knee for all the good it does me. I’m a moron, a cretin, a doofus, an arsewit. I’m so revoltingly dim, the moment I finish this sentence I’m going to walk away from this keyboard and kick myself right in the f***ing head just for being so stupid. Ow.

Anyway, I suspect one of the root causes of my profound and overwhelming thickery is the amount of time I spend watching shows like The X Factor (Sat, 6.40pm, ITV1) as opposed to, say, How Music Works With Howard Goodall (Sat, 8.30pm, C4).

Regular readers may recall I mentioned the latter programme a fortnight ago at the end of a regulation spite-fuelled dismissal of every human being in I’m A Celebrity … I gave it a throwaway recommendation of sorts, saying “I could’ve used this space to promote something worthwhile, like Howard Goodall’s How Music Works … but let’s face it, you don’t want to read that, and I don’t really want to write about it (it’s good though – watch it)” – a comment that struck at least one reader as spectacularly obnoxious; they emailed to tell me I was being lazy and proud of it. And you know what? They’ve got a point.

Because I’ve just watched this week’s episode of Goodall’s series and it deserves more than a passing thumbs-up. It’s an absorbing, fascinating programme that charmingly explains the development and use of the raw elements of music – tonight’s edition, which examines harmony, feels like a warm, comforting bath compared to the screeching, empty gaudiness of the X Factor, a show that’s not even vaguely about music any more thanks to the utterly inexplicable ongoing inclusion of Ray (a jigging, Brylcreemed cross between a ventriloquist’s dummy and a screaming otter foetus who hits every note with a hammer) and the MacDonald Brothers (bland ladyboy twins gently slitting music’s throat with faraway grins on their faces – if the Nazis had won, all bands would sound like this by law).

Anyway, How Music Works is proper, copper-bottomed, quality television. Goodall himself (a successful composer responsible for the Blackadder title music) has the inoffensive looks of a kindly milkman, knows his subject matter from top to toe, and clearly enjoys passing this knowledge on. The show deserves a better slot; it’s fighting against too many bellowing distractions. Mind you, no matter what time it’s on, I suspect my mind’s too hopelessly perforated to appreciate it properly. I’ve grown so accustomed to TV shows that attempt to bypass my (admittedly scant) intellect completely, it’s downright unsettling to suddenly encounter one that’s earnestly trying to cram new information into my head. In this day and age, that’s almost a violation. What’s more, although it felt like I was learning loads of new things while the programme is on – minor triads, major chords and so on – as soon as it finished, I was hard-pressed to recall any of the facts. (A similar effect occurs when I read the New Scientist; during the reading of it, I can feel myself growing cleverer, yet the moment I stop, my newly-acquired learning vanishes, like a meal I’ve shat clean away.) But never mind me. I’m dumb, and terrified people might finally uncover the echoing depths of my dumbness. Thank God I’d never confess to it in print. I’d have to be twice as thick as half a cow to do something as stupid as that.