More frequently hospital clinicians are reviewing images from MR studies of their patients before seeking formal radiological opinion. This practice is driven by a multitude of factors, including an increased demand placed on hospital services, the wide availability of the picture archiving and communication system, time pressures for patient treatment (eg, in the management of acute stroke) and an inherent desire for the clinician to learn. Knowledge of the basic physical principles behind MRI is essential for correct image interpretation. This article, written for the general hospital physician, describes the basic physics of MRI taking into account the machinery, contrast weighting, spin- and gradient-echo techniques and pertinent safety issues. Examples provided are primarily referenced to neuroradiology reflecting the subspecialty for which MR currently has the greatest clinical application.