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How Music Works

David Byrne

(McSweeney's; US: Sep 2012)

This is a pretty great book. In general, books by rock musicians are not especially memorable, but if anyone could pull off the difficult feat of writing intelligently and engagingly about the social and technological influences acting upon the creation, dissemination and consumption of music, it would be David Byrne. The former Talking Heads frontman has proven himself to be an imaginative innovator and explorer of musical boundaries, both with his band and his collaborations with Brian Eno (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), Fatboy Slim (Here Lies Love), St Vincent (Love This Giant) and others. With his collection of music-themed essays in How Music Works, Byrne proves himself to be a skillful, precise writer, as well.


You don’t have to be a fan of Byrne or Talking Heads to enjoy this book, but it indisputably helps. (I am pretty familiar with the band’s output through 1985’s Little Creatures, not so much after that.) Byrne muses on numerous topics throughout the book’s ten meaty chapters; though not intended as a memoir, the material is inevitably colored by the author’s experience. Byrne’s early Talking Heads days gigging at CBGB’s are discussed at some length, as are other aspects of his composing and recording experience.


This is far from being a criticism. For someone familiar with albums like Fear of Music or Speaking in Tongues, Byrne’s description of the composing and recording process for those records is fascinating. Ditto the early insights as to how the author fell into playing music more or less by chance.


Elsewhere, Byrne doesn’t discuss his experiences so much as reflect on changes in recording technology and distribution that he has witnessed over time. He has plenty of opinions about those changes, some of them surprising. He doesn’t notice much loss of sonic fidelity in mp3s as opposed to CDs or vinyl, for example, and what he notices doesn’t particularly trouble him. In some quarters, this amounts to a kind of blasphemy.


Byrne suggests early on that the book need not be read chronologically—that a reader can dip into and out of the chapters, skipping about as his/her interests dictate. This leads to a certain amount of repetition, as when the cultural critic Theodor Adorno is (briefly) re-introduced each time he is mentioned. But this is a minor cavil, indeed. Genrally, Byrne orders his material in a way that allows him to make his points, offer up a few examples—or a lengthier set of musings—and move along. Unlike the free-form, often improvisational lyrics to his songs—raise your hand if you can tell me whether “Burning Down the House” is about anything—How Music Works is a tightly focused, always clear set of essays.


He makes some interesting points while he’s at it. One of the main themes is that music is shaped by the environment that creates it. This might seem obvious—bagpipes are designed to be heard over great distances in the Scottish moutains, African drums on the plains and savannahs of that continent. However, the increasing prevalence of the MIDI interface (a type of computer program that converts sounds to signals and then stores them on a computer) also affects songwriting and arranging. Certain sounds are more easily captured by MIDI, namely keyboards and certain types of percussion. This means that songwriters and music producers who rely on the MIDI technology will gravitate to those sounds and away from others like guitars and wind instruments. This is just one tiny example; Byrne goes on for some length detailing others.


The other side of this, of course, is the prevalence of studio technology that is now usable at home by aspiring musicians. The effect of this has been to level the playing field for amateur or semi-professional musicians, who now can reasonably aspire to record and release music that is as technically proficient as any major studio product. This doesn’t mean that every home recording is worth listening to—but then again, does anyone think that every major-label product worth a spin?


Byrne also has interesting things to say about how art is contextualized for the consumers. “The arts don’t exist in isolation,” he reminds us. “And of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more than it is a thing—it is yoked to where you heard it, how much you paid for it, and who else was there.” This is an interesting thought, and it is of course true, but it is something that I had never conceptualized so clearly before. It’s one of those ideas that is both entirely self-evident yet presented with a freshness that makes it seem suprisingly new. There are many such ideas in this book.


Elsewhere, Byrne dismisses the notion that a song (or by implication, a novel or movie or TV show or epic poem) is the reflection of the songwriter/performer’s experience. “It’s assumed that I write lyrics… for songs because I have something to express.” Not true, he tells us. The performer’s emotions do not provide the catayst for composition. “On the contrary, it is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us, rather than the other way around. We don’t make the music—it makes us.”


I find such boldness irresistible, especially when it’s backed up by pages of thoughtful analysis, professional experience and common sense. Regardless of whether you agree with him, Byrne’s presentation is lively, direct, and eminently readable. Fans of Byrne and Talking Heads will find much to enjoy here, but even casual or non-fans with an interest in music’s social and cultural context will find much to chew on.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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