Howard Goodall: a great explainer

Having read Adam Boxer and Ben Newmark‘s recent blogs about the great explainers, one other example immediately came to mind and I just wanted to write a quick blog about it.

In his fantastic series of TV programmes called ‘How music works’, Howard Goodall explains how music is constructed, developed and why particular melodies evoke emotions in humans listening to them.

What I found interesting about the way Goodall explains is that he deconstructs a complex topic and starts right at the beginning, going to the basic first step and then building on it bit by bit. So for example, he starts by explaining the pentatonic principle that all melodies have the same five notes in common, something which, he suspects, was pre-programmed into humans from birth.

From that first core principle, Goodall then builds our knowledge of melodies, chunk by chunk. Each time he adds a new chunk of knowledge, he explains what it’s about and then models it for us. As a result, he is able to guide us through a fairly complex subject without overloading our cognitive abilities.

He also uses a ladder as a ‘concrete example’ to show progression of notes and how this can affect a melody. The ladder example is used throughout the episode, as he explains different principles and models them. So for instance, he shows how the melody in the Blues, instead of going from one rung to another on the (notes) ladder, goes for a ‘bendy rung’ instead.

That to me encapsulates a great explainer: the ability to break down complex information into easy-to-digest chunks and explain it, using understandable examples, as well as model it so we can see clearly what is meant. In order to do this, you would need to have thorough subject knowledge. I think the acid test for whether my knowledge of any given topic is thorough, is whether I can explain it in simple and clear terms. If I can’t, I probably don’t understand it well enough.

Here’s the episode to view on YouTube:


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