How Music Works

How Music Works

Ratings: 8.21/10 from 43 users.

How Music WorksWe all respond to music - whether clicking our fingers, humming along or dancing - there's something out there for everyone. In this series Goodall looks at melody, rhythm, harmony and bass to establish how music is made and how it comes to reflect different cultures.

Setting out on a journey that spans the globe and moves through the centuries, Goodall uncovers the elements that are shared by all styles of music. Following a trail of diverse musical talents from Mahler to David Bowie; the blues to Bulgarian folk songs; medieval choral music to disco; he reveals the tried and tested tricks of the composer's trade.

Melody - In this film composer Howard Goodall looks at melody's basic elements. Why are some melodic shapes common to all cultures across the world? Can successful melodies be written at random? If not, what are the familiar melodic patterns composers of all types of music have fallen back on again and again, and why do they work?

Rhythm - From the moment our hearts start beating, rhythm is integral to us all. From walking to dancing, from clicking our fingers to tapping our toes, we are all programmed to respond to rhythm. In this film Howard looks at the common rhythmic patterns that have been used by musicians from all cultures, from Brahms to rappers, from the founders of Cuban son to Philip Glass, from Stevie Wonder to Fats Waller.

Harmony - In the late middle ages western harmony started on a journey that would take it in a completely separate direction to that of the music of other parts of the world. It discovered chords, and, over the next seven centuries, began to unlock their harmonic possibilities. In this film Howard looks at how western harmony works, and how, in the present day, it has fused with other forms of music to create new styles.

Bass - For half a millennium instrument makers have been trying to construct instruments of all shapes and sizes capable of thudding, sonorous low notes. Only with the arrival of the synthesizer did they succeed in producing a rival to the mighty organ. With disco, dance, and drum 'n' bass, the bass has arrived centre stage.

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58 Comments / User Reviews

  1. J.M. Bombeeck

    You seem to have missed Brazilian music completely (samba is on the beat in odd measures, 1/16th ahead in even measures), choro sambada (the other way round) etc. There are at least a dozen song types there involving syncopated rhythms, and like in Cuba are a mix of African an European influences.

  2. Finn Bjerke, Denmark

    A real eye opener for anyone who likes music all the elements are there: The cultural history and the beauty of bass, rhytm, harmony and melody. Ive seen these programmes several times and I love music even more after seeing these programmes. Goodall is an amazing teacher.

  3. Jacquie

    Is this documentary alright for children? Say, grade 6?

  4. Joseph Stewart

    The singer of Berlin's "Blue Skies" is Al Jolson. Search "Celebrating Star John Wayne with Al Jolson" in YouTube. I emailed Goodall's PA, who told me to contact the doco's producer, who in turn informed me. Enjoy! :-) Joseph in Auckland, NZ

  5. Jamin Hoffman

    This is a GREAT series - I wish I could buy it on DVD and play it for my music students! Is there anyway I can purchase it, even by download?

    1. sidlaw hills

      you can order CDs and dvds look for howard goodalls web site

  6. Imightberiding

    I can't say enough good about this fantastic series. Anyone who has even a basic appreciation for music should make the time available to watch this presentation. Well done Mr. Goodall.

    This may be a few years old but should not be forgotten nor over-looked. I'm definitely picking up my guitar again & want to run out & buy a bass.

  7. YvonneEllis

    what an inspiring documentary- fascinating information and beautifully directed with lovely appropriate and original imagery- thank you!

  8. Justin Cusack

    Uhhhhh I'm pretty sure that the middle eastern women was singing in a Double Harmonic Scale, not a Pentatonic... They are not even remotely similar.

  9. Marcus Nilsson

    all of these doc's were so inspiring and artistic! I love the internet - without it I would never have come across all of this inspiration. could anyone watch these without smiling? =)

  10. Svetlana Vigliaturo

    A great master class of music composition done in a fun and highly explicit way! Just a must see documentary for any person who chose music his profession.

    1. Guest

      Howard Goodall is a great narrator and teacher. I also like his series on significant years in music history.
      Is music your profession?

    2. Svetlana Vigliaturo

      Music is not my profession - it is my passion!

  11. Farley Crabgrass

    I found this doc fascinating and oh so informative. Forty years of being a musician and Goodall takes so many things I knew just a little about, and melds them together in a few hours. I watched it three times in two weeks - twice with musician friends. What an excellent piece of work.

  12. jonathan jackward

    excellent ,one of the best music docs I've seen. but still haven't watched one that explains the entirety of music theory in the correct order, maybe that knowledge is harder to come by.

    1. StratMatt777

      Is that knowledge you are searching out or you already know it and are just wondering if you will ever see a doc that presents it properly? If you don't know it already a good first step is to understand why the black keys are there on the piano. The major scale (also called Ionian) goes from C to C. That is the basis of everything. Everything else has evolved from that starting point.

    2. dickhead


  13. Tangata Whenua

    On topic: this documentary lost it when 1. the geezer sang about 'Christ' and 2. when he included that annoying twat 'Sting'.

    He's not entirely wrong about music but I gots to disagree with some of the over-scripted simplifications re: melody. He also said absolutely nothing about rhythm!

    The definition of musical 'modes' by the Greeks settled what ancient improvisers were reaching for all along with their few and narrow intervals.

    Tempered tuning is well-modern compared to the history of music, but it newly allowed for the playing of music in all key signatures.

    Learn some of these evolved music-theory rules - them break 'em... that's what makes good music! It really is so much better when a player is discovering an instrument! The brain instructs the fingers to repeat what the ears heard sounded right! All the theory in the world will be of no help unless the ear connects with brain and instructs the fingers!

    Being a Zombie ain't much good either - to make music, you gots to have a soul!

    1. Jayke Murrell

      He does an entire section on rhythm and talks about how throughout time musical rules were broken. What sounds like soulful music to one person may not to another. You are stupid bro.

    2. jonathan jackward

      the rythm part came later on and the melody stuff was grossly oversimplified but i guess that was the point of the whole thing

  14. Jinkaza

    Does anyone know the name of the celtic song 2 minutes into Part 5?

    1. jaberwokky

      Kate Rusby - The wild goose.

  15. carolejbeaton

    This brilliant doc was entertaining, educational, and funny. I had no music education (due to "music" being a "frill" in catholic school in the '50's.) The more I learn, the more I enjoy listening. This series touches on all types of music from classical to rap and more. Highly recommended!

  16. damian

    great doc!,i loved this when it was on telly a few years back!

  17. Mark Zajac

    Does anyone know who did the rendition of "Blue Skies" by Irving Berlin in the first part of this documentary? I didn't even see it in the credits.

    1. Havasaur

      I'm trying to find out the same thing. I've looked through all the singers listed on it's wikipedia page with no luck. I know it¨s been ten months, but did you find it out finally?

    2. smadge_7

      me too, can't find it anywhere. please let me know if you find it! some ID please!

  18. Jerome

    A thousand curses on you, Sony Music Entertainment.

    1. StratMatt777

      This was by sony? Well no wonder they went crazy showing that Pentagram (knowing how sony's music labels are obsessed with egyptian/pagan/satanic symoblogy such as the all seeing left eye of Horus). Now the pentagram makes sense.

  19. wacko

    yes i agree with Daniel. That would be VeRY interesting. Although I found this doc interesting and I do my best to educate myself with the theory of music I've always found it somewhat complicates and robotizes music. I'm sure music didn't start so complicated. It started with 2 people banging different rocks together and saying "That sound good!" I taught myself music through the same means. By playing what i thought sounded good, not by playing something in a way that i'm told will sound good. Through teaching myself music I found that I had already taught myself modes and scales and modified scales i had apparently came up with all on my own.

    Don't get me wrong though, it's good to know the rules, it allows you to break them even further.

    in my opinion i think if you want to become a musician you should let the music teach you first, then take lessons.

    1. Bradley Conrad

      All music theory is really, is the codification of what you "discovered" on your own. People discovered what sounds good or is musically useful and wrote it down in a common language - that of music theory. Music theory is only "rules" when you want to write in a particular style from the past. For example: When we talk about avoiding parallel 5ths and other theoretical "rules" it is only because people found them distasteful sounding not because at the time they were arbitrarily outlawed.
      Music theory continually grows. All it is ever meant to be is a description of convention - if you come up with something new then it's added to the book.
      People who "object" to music theory and find it "robotizes" music are actually, and somewhat ironically, giving it more weight that those of use who understand it for what it is and find it a useful tool in our creative box.

    2. jonathan jackward

      (always found it somewhat complicates and robotizes music)
      that is like saying ," using a tape measure while building a house is boring and precision is unnecessary. just do it by eye ."

      A complete understanding of music theory, in the correct order will give a person the ability to focus on the creative end, as they will not have to audition each separate note to see if it fits. once the theory is memorized it becomes second nature. the artist can then transform their ideas and emotions into a piece of art. to not know music theory is to not know your choices, therefore taking attention away from the important element ,the creative flow. there are times where veering away from the theory may be important, like in noise music, industrial ,some types of metal, electronica and tribal, but the consonance and dissonance already built into music gives the best results if it is a more mainstream style.

  20. daniel

    i'd like to see a doco exploring the myriad forms of underground avant gard black death ambient noise folk electronic industrial experimental which this doco pretends doesn't exist.

    1. jonathan jackward

      black metal is real music!

  21. HHV

    That cracks me up that the YT bot caught it for violation and I'd bet BBC licensed every clip they used, too.

  22. cutu

    what a wonderful journey .

  23. K. Elvin

    really good doc, worth watching twice!
    brilliant explained, but somehow still complex

  24. Caroline

    These are only the basics of music theory...
    But it's very well explained for those who are new to it.

    nice docu!

  25. daniel

    vaughan williams piece is really good..

  26. christopher.miller

    thanks so much V.

  27. LisaP

    I know nothing about music theory either. Just when I think the guy is getting too complicated for me, he sums it up in a way that makes me get what he was saying. This is quite a fun info roller coaster for me!! Now I can understand my muso mates. Hooray! :D

  28. Creatio-whaa!?

    I know literally nothing whatsoever about the technical side of music. This is really quite fascinating.

  29. BlaketheSnake

    This is awesome.

  30. hero1

    @ tyrone: get some good speakers and a sub woofer! ;)

  31. Baz

    I really like that cross-rhythm. I'm making some on my drum machine

  32. Tigerspaw

    PS Thanks Vlatko

  33. Tigerspaw

    Thought I cant watch the hole program It is still a must see doc.

  34. 420 Vision

    wonderful doco,.. thanks for access to this

  35. Anthony


    its prob becaue most songs are equalized so that the bass isn't to loud, try dl your fav songs in flac format then use the graphic equalizer (winamp plays flac) to tune out the higher frequency of the other instruments that way you should be able to hear it. flac files are usually really big but the same technique will work for mp3 formats.

  36. peter s

    tyrone the bass is the boom boom boom so to speak the notes are deep i am a amature dj and know it takes time to truly disguinguish between different levels try listening to hard dance/ trance and bass will become very apparent :)

  37. yearone

    finally a documentary worth watching

  38. Scott


  39. Liisa

    Could only watch 3parts from first episode, it appears that Sony Music Entertainment has blocked other parts in my country.

    I was really looking forward watching those doc's :(

  40. Poyan

    I would love to watch this with HD sound.

  41. tyrone

    no matter how hard I try to focus on it in any song I can never hear the bass!! is it just something to develop?

    1. Monk900

      yea, you'll develop it, you just have to be aware that a bass is playing and know that sound, soon you'll be able to hear bass in everything even if there is no bass

  42. Anthony

    BRILLIANT, puts the evolution of the scale patterns into context which personally is so valuable to me because to anyone who is self taught understanding that is precious information. i've always loved the blues and that interest drove me to understand the origin of the pattern through the cultural context of American history etc. but seeing the other systems in the same way was enlightening to me i've never though of it like that. irony is iv'e even seen this doc before!

  43. Wendy

    Vlatko, I love this doc series. I haven't seen it for years, and I wish it were available for purchase. Thanks for posting it!

    Anyone interested in music history or theory at all will enjoy this one. Many of the musical concepts are demonstrated with familiar popular music. (Plus it's British; so you know it'll have blues guitarists and the Beatles in there somewhere.)