Review – How Music Works by David Byrne

We all listen to music. Maybe we only have it playing in the background, use it to help us sleep or meditate, or perhaps you sit and listen to it carefully. However, no matter how or why you listen, it can’t help but have an effect on you. The majority of us just take it for granted that we enjoy the music we listen to and never really stop to think why. While we can talk about the song’s lyrics or how the combination of melody and rhythm make us feel good, we usually don’t take it much further.

How Music Works by David Byrne
How Music Works by David Byrne
While this passive approach to music may be sufficient for the majority, philosophers and scholars have been fascinated with the why’s and wherefores of music since the time of the ancient Greeks. While most study through the centuries has focused on either the physics, the psychological or emotional nature of music, hardly anybody has combined those fields with the more practical aspects involved with the creation and appreciation of music. That is until David Byrne wrote How Music Works. Originally published as a hardcover, a revised paperback edition has just been published by McSweeney’s, allowing Byrne to include new material reflecting the ever increasing nature of the way music works.

Byrne, who is probably best known as the former frontman for arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of New York’s 1970s so-called punk scene, Talking Heads, comes at his subject from all angles. As might be expected he talks about how “music works” in terms of its creation, but he doesn’t stop there. He covers everything, from the variety of business models available to musicians today, the effect of technology not only on how we listen to music but how its produced to the correlation between the basic music scale and planetary orbits. Now, in case any of you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the latter, let me reassure you, as somebody who washed out of a basic physics course dealing with light and sound, that Byrne has the amazing ability to render every subject he discusses into language both accessible and intelligent.

Naturally, as a performer and songwriter, he spends a large chunk of the book talking about the whys and hows of music creation. Right off the top he shows he’s not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom about artistic creation by stating there’s more than just moments of inspiration or whispers from some transcendental figure like a muse that goes into the writing of any piece of music. He posits the theory that context is as much a factor as anything else, and lays out a pretty convincing argument to support this hypothesis. He examines the history of Western music and the way it has evolved as the acoustics of the space it was played in changed from the massive concrete edifices of cathedrals, whose echoes made it impossible to play music with multiple parts and complicated phrasings, to the concert halls of today where the complicated melodies of orchestral music can be discerned.

Of course when the technology which allowed music to be recorded and listened to at any time entered the picture that provided a whole new context, a context which is continually evolving as the technology improves and grows easier to use and becomes financially more accessible. Byrne talks us through recording technology from the earliest days of Edison’s wax tubes to today’s digital equipment. He carefully details how each development not only changed the way music is listened to, but how it affected those who created and performed it. He talks of musicians, most famously Glenn Gould the Canadian piano genius, who stopped performing live completely. Instead they turned their energies into trying to produce perfection in the studio instead of having to live with the imperfections of live concerts. Thus the context changed from seeking to entertain people in a public setting to how to create note perfect reproductions of a piece using both personal abilities and technology in the pursuit of this goal.

David Byrne
David Byrne
However, it’s not just the creation of music Byrne talks about, he also talks about the practicalities of making a living in the music business. How the odds are almost impossibly stacked against the musician who doesn’t sell millions of copies of his or her record to ever really come out ahead if they sign a traditional deal with a record label. Again he takes us through the history of popular music in the recording age as musicians began to be signed by record companies in the early part of the 20th century to the situation in the present day. While much has been made of how people like Amanda Palmer have been able to fund recordings and tours through crowd source funding, Byrne points out they are still the exceptions to the rule.

While it’s true advances in technology have made it easier for bands to record their own music, manufacture, distribution and touring still require outlays of money most of them don’t have access to. He outlines the various types of deals available to musicians today, including the pros and cons of each, showing just how difficult it is for them to make a living wage. While digital download sites are now able to sell an artist’s work without having to recoup costs such as shipping and manufacturing of product, none of these savings are being passed along to the musician in the form of increased royalties. iTunes, and others, still take the same percentage the big record companies used to take off the top before a band see’s a cent.

No matter what aspect of music Byrne talks about, his approach is wonderfully conversational. It’s like being given the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about everything there is to do with the subject. On top of this he is able to illustrate each of his points with examples from his own career and experiences with the creation, science and business of music. Even when he starts talking about the physics, (and metaphysics) psychology and the various philosophies behind what music means to us as human beings and how it impacts us on emotional and spiritual levels, he manages to maintain this same tone.

The fact that he can make chapters about subjects with the potential to be as dry as the desert sands as enjoyable as his discussions about the early days at CBGBS with Talking Heads is one of the truly remarkable and wonderful parts of this book. True it’s not a book you’re going to sit down and read in one go, there’s just too much information to be assimilated. However, at the same time, How Music Works makes some incredibly difficult and complex topics accessible without ever once talking down to its audience or assuming we share any of its author’s experiences or inside information.

If you’ve ever had any interest in music, especially popular music, beyond listening to it, but haven’t really had any idea of how to find out more about it, How Music Works is like owning your very own personal encyclopedia. Not only can you sit down and read it from cover to cover, you can also look up information on specific topics without having to wade through a great deal of extraneous detail. This book should probably be on the curriculums of all post secondary music programs, but can also be read with ease by anybody with even just a casual interest in the subject.

David Byrne has created some of the most interesting and intelligent popular music of his era, and this book he proves he’s equally adept as a writer. Witty, insightful, thought provoking and always interesting, How Music Works isn’t just for musicians, it’s for everyone who loves music.

How Music Works is available here.

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