How Music Works





I expected ex-Talking Heads front man and eclectic solo artist David Byrne would have some interesting things to say about music. But I was impressed by the scope and range of How Music Works. Byrne covers nearly every aspect of creating and enjoying music from the first steps of composing and to the nuances of performance to producing and promoting. Plus he puts it in sync with the world we live in never forgetting that music is a vital and ever-changing aspect of existence.

Byrne approaches music in what I call an ethno-centric view. Perhaps "Techno-centric" may be a better term considering how much he focuses on the modern recording aspects. Byrns uses the term "creation in reverse." He does not see music as arising from just the emotional interior of the creator's mind but through an interactive process that is affected by our surroundings; social, cultural, politically, technological, and physical. He discusses how certain types of music responds to certain surroundings. When you think of it, it makes sense. It is hard to think of punk rock rising from the symphony hall and much easier to see it coming out of dark crowded clubs such as New York's CBGB. His style of writing is fairly meandering but he structures those meanderings in chapters like Technology Shapes Music", "In the Recording Studio", "How to Make a Scene" (about performing live), and even "Business and Finances". By the end of the book you not only have a good sense what goes into that MP3 you just downloaded but how that music has changed from the day of live performance only before music could be recorded.

While not an autobiography, Byrne relies strongly on his own experiences, giving the reader an intimate look at his own creative process both in and out of the studio. He uses his own story to illustrate his various ideas of creation in reverse. One of the things I found revealing is his description on how the various forms of recording affects the way we perceive music. The limits of the sound and durations of the first Edison discs gave the early 20th century listeners a different experience than the LPs, cassettes and CDs we are used to, not to mention the revolution of digital files. Byrne's assertions about our expectations of recorded music vs. live music was quite insightful. We tend to think of the recording of a song as the "real" version in that we expect the artist to recreate it in his live performances. Yet the recorded version is a frozen moment of time aided by the technical constraint of the recording studio, whether analog or digital The artist's live performance may be different but just as authentic relying on all the cultural and aural surroundings of the moment.

Byrnes' impressive book is notable for the way it causes the reader to reassess modern music. He asks us to take in more than just sounds and pay attention to the way we receive the music in its social and natural settings. There's a lot to take in here yet the author manages to keep it exciting and relevant. I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about music.