How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works

How Music Works is David Byrne’s remarkable and buoyant celebration of a subject he has spent a lifetime thinking about. In it he explores how profoundly music is shaped by its time and place, and he explains how the advent of recording technology in the twentieth century forever changed our relationship to playing, performing, and listening to music.Acting as historian an...

Title:How Music Works
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Edition Language:English

How Music Works Reviews

  • Charles

    I have been a Talking Heads listener for 30 years. For some reason that escapes me now I began to read How Music Works. To my delight I found it compelling.

    While much of the text is almost a autobiographical narrative of the creating of Byrne's musical corpus, the role of that narrative is quite different than one might expect. I take the book to be a discussion, a philosophical discussion in the best sense, of the creative process. I am reminded of Wittgenstein's metaphor of coming to understan

    I have been a Talking Heads listener for 30 years. For some reason that escapes me now I began to read How Music Works. To my delight I found it compelling.

    While much of the text is almost a autobiographical narrative of the creating of Byrne's musical corpus, the role of that narrative is quite different than one might expect. I take the book to be a discussion, a philosophical discussion in the best sense, of the creative process. I am reminded of Wittgenstein's metaphor of coming to understand a concept by a detailed exploration of its neighborhood, approaching from every direction.

    Byrne builds a case against the picture of the creative process as a kind of spasm of a tortured soul. While there are likely examples of that genesis of creativity, Byrne instead examines how all the different, divergent factors that impinge on music serve to constrain, enable, and shape the creation that flows from the artist's interests and desires, including extended discussions of venue, the activity of performance, the evolving economics of the music industry, transformative technology, the social scene, collaboration. The discussion is concrete, grounded in his personal narrative but also abstracted from it, distilled.

    I might add that it is fascinating to watch

    in conjunction with the book's tale.

    I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the creative process, from music to poetry to painting. It is a wise book.

  • Patrick

    An uneven, often enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing read. My disappointment stems–as, I'm sure, will most readers' interest in the first place (mine included)–from my deep admiration and subsequent expectations of David Byrne. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Byrne writes that he didn't set out to write an aging rocker bio, nor a set of "think pieces," but a bit of both. The book is most interesting and successful in the biographical chapters: reading David Byrne's anecdotes a

    An uneven, often enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing read. My disappointment stems–as, I'm sure, will most readers' interest in the first place (mine included)–from my deep admiration and subsequent expectations of David Byrne. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Byrne writes that he didn't set out to write an aging rocker bio, nor a set of "think pieces," but a bit of both. The book is most interesting and successful in the biographical chapters: reading David Byrne's anecdotes and insights on the making of all those great Talking Heads records, et al., is immensely satisfying. But his philosophizing on broader musical issues is considerably less fulfilling (especially so, admittedly, for the reader who spends much of his personal and professional life immersed in the same issues; perhaps more interesting as entree to those concepts for the lay reader?). And I didn't appreciate the repudiation of classical music culture in the "Amateurs" chapter. It was a little hard to read, from Byrne's perspective, about how well funded classical music is, while dealing bitterly with my own orchestra's financial crisis; and it was disheartening to learn that one of my musical heroes doesn't particularly care for Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven.

    But what the book lacks, in places, in depth and substance, it partly makes up for in Byrne's beguiling sincerity–the same quality that, for me, renders his music (there too, even when flawed) irresistible. Which reinforces my ultimate conclusion about this book: that I didn't get much from it as a treatise on how music works, but enjoyed it as a lens on David Byrne.

    That–plus the conviction that it was certainly a better read than "The Baseball Codes"–saves this book from a 2-star rating.

  • Jud Barry

    Byrne gives us his take on music in a style that is very pleasant, straightforward, and conversational. He comes across as someone whose wide-ranging, collaborative experience and creative intelligence combine with an everyday kind of modesty in a way that allows you to imagine you could run into him in a club somewhere (he tries to take in at least one live performance a week) and have a good conversation, provided the music lets you (one of his criteria for a good music scene).

    The title is a l

    Byrne gives us his take on music in a style that is very pleasant, straightforward, and conversational. He comes across as someone whose wide-ranging, collaborative experience and creative intelligence combine with an everyday kind of modesty in a way that allows you to imagine you could run into him in a club somewhere (he tries to take in at least one live performance a week) and have a good conversation, provided the music lets you (one of his criteria for a good music scene).

    The title is a little bit of a misnomer--I wanted to see a parenthetical addendum, country-music-song-style, something along the lines of (And How It Doesn't) to indicate that some of the best parts of the book are those where Byrne looks askance at certain musical phenomena, e.g. the current state of elitist classical musical establishments (symphonies) or Muzak.

    The book would be a great gift or recommendation for someone--especially a young person--who's passionate about listening to music but who hasn't really thought about it in any structured way, or alternatively for someone who has *only* had formal instruction.

    I did have a few quibbles--"Technology Shapes Music" starts with sound recording, which is strange, considering that elsewhere in the book Byrne mentions the Neanderthal stone flute, surely a form of technology. It seems even stranger when, within the technology chapter, there's a section on "instrument technology and its influence on music" that starts with the theremin and implies that it's the first instrument to give Westerners "less culturally-specific options" allowing, for example, for non-Western bending of notes. This segues into a section on the electric guitar, which culminates in the story of its sound in the hands of Jimi Hendrix: "That unwritten law of staying true to the sound of a traditional instrument had been violently broken. ... As with Theremin and his instrument, the electric guitars were breaking free of history." There is a lot to argue with here, but I don't want to insult this excellent book by belaboring it; suffice it to say that whatever unwritten law there may have been in Western music, the first ones to break it were African-Americans "jazzing" the sound of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.

    But overall this is a fine and a fun book, and Byrne's perspective is admirably holistic: "I welcome the liberation of music from the prison of melody, rigid structure, and harmony. Why not? But I also listen to music that does adhere to those guidelines. Listening to the Music of the Spheres might be glorious, but I crave a concise song now and then, a narrative or a snapshot more than a whole universe."

  • Loring Wirbel

    I approached Byrne's latest with a little trepidation, due to a less than stellar NY Times review, and due to the number of people in the music industry (notably his own former bandmates in Talking Heads) who feel somewhat mistreated by Byrne. I was ready to read something that might be a bit arrogant, but was pleasantly surprised to read a folksy, fun, and exuberantly-written series of essays about how the 21st-century music industry operates, how the disappearance of the physical artifact (CD

    I approached Byrne's latest with a little trepidation, due to a less than stellar NY Times review, and due to the number of people in the music industry (notably his own former bandmates in Talking Heads) who feel somewhat mistreated by Byrne. I was ready to read something that might be a bit arrogant, but was pleasantly surprised to read a folksy, fun, and exuberantly-written series of essays about how the 21st-century music industry operates, how the disappearance of the physical artifact (CD or LP) will affect that industry, and how the arguments over how live and recorded music should be presented, processed, and marketed have antecedents stretching back into the 19th century.

    There are aspects of arrangement of the book's material, and how certain material is presented, that would be less than optimal from my own point of view, but Byrne scores enough grand-slam home runs to merit this book an easy five-star ranking. He approaches some topics with a detached and Zen air that will drive some passionate music lovers crazy, but that is sort of Byrne's point. And his conclusions are usually ones I agree with.

    Byrne really is trying to write two books, interspersing dual narratives. He is writing about the history of live performance and the advent of music recording a century ago, and he also wants to provide a partial memoir of his own work with Talking Heads, and as a solo artist. For the latter task, he elected to break the story up into live-performance history, recording-studio history, and scene-making (CBGBs, primarily) history. This may be a little maddening for those who want to sort out a linear history of Talking Heads, but it allows his memoir material to dovetail with his analytical material more effectively. (It also makes it easier for him to avoid talking frankly about how his collaborations with others sometimes dissolved in anger and recrimination - I will give Byrne points for quoting Pitchfork that "Byrne will collaborate with a bag of Doritos," and for titling a subsection "Plays Well with Others" - but he doesn't speak frankly enough about why he sometimes flunked the plays-well-with-others report card).

    When talking about the Edison/Victrola recorded device wars of the early 20th century, he shows that the dispute between CD and LP fans over which medium sounds "warmer" is nothing new at all, but decades old. In analyzing the sound qualities of the cathedral and the juke joint, he shows how decisions about the musical instruments to use, the timbre, volume, and pitch, had everything to do with the performance space. In so doing, Byrne utterly rejects the idea that there is a "high art" (symphony hall, opera theater) vs. "low art" (barn dance or Irish pub) distinction to be made - in fact, he rejects the concept that there is "evolution" in music at all (except for the addition of electronic representation), insisting instead that there is only an ebb and flow. The African drum circle is as advanced as Stockhausen, in Byrne's eyes.

    This struggle for egalitarian ears and a sense that "it's all good" may outrage some musical purists. Byrne admits that lossy compression such as MP3 has made consumers "crappier listeners," but then goes on to say that the result certainly isn't as bad as the 1960s transitor-radio sound, and that many people may make emotional attachments to music they hear in MP3 format. Similarly, he says that the tendency to initially sample musical phrases and later sample entire musical instrument sound libraries, may lead to vast archives of electronic music made entirely from a laptop, with no "real" musical instrument present. This can outrage traditional musicians, he says, but also allows a flexibility in the portfolios of Girl Talk, DangerMau5, etc. (though it may make it harder for the latter breed of musician to perform in a "live" concert).

    What Byrne most adamantly rejects is the notion that a musician or a recording is more "authentic" because it was a scratchy field recording of the Alan Lomax variety, a lo-fi recording of the Pavement/GbV variety, or a live recording of real instruments in an Irish pub. A new kind of authentic behavior is built from inauthenticity, Byrne says, so we should be careful about rejecting anything. (A folkie musician at a live show in my home town had to put up with a woman in the audience constantly putting down hip-hop, and he finally said, "Maybe you just need to grow a new pair of ears.")

    Byrne provides technology chapters to explain how music itself, and the task of recording it, was digitized and formatted in a way that was bound to eliminate the archival devices, just as the online world is slowly making the printed book fade from memory. He makes few technical mistakes in describing this, and scores wonderful observations regarding how technology changes both the emotional response to music, and the sense of music's texture and layering. He also provides an extended chapter on the business of being a musician in an era where the record label is disappearing. In the process of discussing six contractual business models, he is remarkably frank about the costs he entailed in making some of his own recent recordings, and which business methods proved profitable. He holds up Aimee Mann as an example of someone willing to try unusual business models for marketing and distribution, though he warns that an extreme DIY (do-it-yourself) model can be very expensive for the emerging musician, particularly if the musician is a business neophyte.

    The chapters following the hard-headed 21st-century business analysis were a bit of a letdown. I loved the intent of his chapter on amateur music-festival presentations and funding models for getting amateur music underwritten, but the examples he chose seemed scattershot. What made the 'Amateurs!' chapter such a pleasure to read, even if only a partial success as a guide, was its denunciation of the arts-council aristocracy that only wants to legitimize the "high art" of concert hall. (Byrne loves to point out that the original Italian and German opera audiences were comprised of a bunch of uncouth loudmouths, often less polite than the moshers in the worst punk clubs.)

    The final chapter, 'Harmonia Mundi,' had a great intent in pulling together global music trends, but I think he could have opted for a more analytical study of cross-cultural resonances. The analysis of Kepler's "music of the spheres" seemed a bit dated and almost alchemical, if not hippie-dippie. But he included a section on mirror-neurons and the rise of the empathic consciousness, so the book does not conclude in a full fizzle.

    The most satisfying aspect of the book was not merely that Byrne likes all kinds of music from all kinds of cultures. Many writers on music agree with that. Byrne goes a step farther by discussing all aspects of music presentation, music recording, and the false claims of authenticity raised by many curators. The penniless blues musician sought by Lomax in the Mississippi Delta, and the billion-selling dancey-pop artist relying on all-electronic music libraries, both display different forms of authenticity in Byrne's eyes (and ears). This will be the aspect of the book that drives music purists mad. Maybe they just need to grow a new pair of ears.

  • John Lee

    I've loved the music of Talking Heads for a long time, so when I first heard about this book, I made sure to file it away so that I could read it. I finally did, and I'm really glad that David Byrne wrote this book.

    This isn't really a memoir, nor is it a scientific treatise. Rather, Byrne simply goes through the music creation process (ideation, performance, recording, manufacturing, promotion, etc.) piece by piece and explains them to the best of his ability. Of course, as a musician, his own e

    I've loved the music of Talking Heads for a long time, so when I first heard about this book, I made sure to file it away so that I could read it. I finally did, and I'm really glad that David Byrne wrote this book.

    This isn't really a memoir, nor is it a scientific treatise. Rather, Byrne simply goes through the music creation process (ideation, performance, recording, manufacturing, promotion, etc.) piece by piece and explains them to the best of his ability. Of course, as a musician, his own experiences do come up frequently, and for fans of Byrne or Talking Heads, it's a real treat to get an insight into the process behind making those records, especially in the early-to-mid Talking Heads era. Byrne often goes on tangents, elaborating upon many different concepts and thoughts which are seemingly only tangentially related to the topic at hand. However, all of these distractions are as enlightening as the main points of the book, and didn't detract from it at all.

    Byrne's takes on these issues are well thought out and elucidated, and while he is often quite opinionated, he seems to give a fair shake to opposing viewpoints as well. I learned a lot about listening to music from this book, and it gave me lots of food for thought about what music means to me, what it can mean to me, and how it can enhance my life.

    I often take music for granted, and as a result I often wish I connected to it in a deeper way, as Byrne seems to do. This book represented a first step of sorts to me in trying to rid myself of that perception. Ultimately, music should be a personal thing, whether one is creating it, consuming it, or experiencing it.

    I plan on buying the expanded paperback edition of this book, so that I can keep it in my own bookshelf and refer to it periodically. There was almost too much in there for me to process this time around, and I look forward to next time.

  • Ben Winch

    This is great. Good. Okay. All of the above. It’s unique (so far as I know): its closest relative is probably Miles Davis’s autobiography, or Byrne-friend Brian Eno’s

    . It’s autobiographical, in a strictly professional/artistic sense – that is, concerned with music over personal experience – and I applaud that. Early on, when I was still in the “dipping-into” phase (something I do with all rock music books) I wondered, against my better judgement, if it was some kind

    This is great. Good. Okay. All of the above. It’s unique (so far as I know): its closest relative is probably Miles Davis’s autobiography, or Byrne-friend Brian Eno’s

    . It’s autobiographical, in a strictly professional/artistic sense – that is, concerned with music over personal experience – and I applaud that. Early on, when I was still in the “dipping-into” phase (something I do with all rock music books) I wondered, against my better judgement, if it was some kind of masterpiece. It seemed to come at music from all sides: composing, performing, producing; the use and manifestation of music in various times and cultures; the way a venue or a studio or (and I loved this bit) a technology (eg Pro Tools) affects/shapes what’s performed or recorded; even the dissemination and/or sale of music via old school music industry channels as opposed to the internet, including a pie-chart breakdown of Byrne’s income and expenditure on various projects both self-funded and label-released. What scope! For a musician, it seemed something like a map through the labyrinth. On second glance, having read it cover to cover, it ain’t all that. As usual when musicians discuss recording, there’s too little nuts and bolts. And, while Byrne’s knowledge is broad, he explores many topics shallowly rather than a few in depth. Maybe the lavish book design (by Mc Sweeney’s) led me to expect more – it certainly is pretty. But deep down it’s just a bunch of articles that half cohere, some of which happen to be great.

  • Pustulio

    Si fuera por el contenido este libro tendría sus cinco estrellas. La estrella que le falta es culpa del editor. Byrne lo dice al principio que él no es escritor y que no sabe como acomodar un libro. Pero pues para eso tienes un editor, la única falla que le veo al libro es orden. Brinca de capítulo en capítulo en temas muy diferentes. Y me parece que pudiera tener un mejor orden si el editor hubiera hecho su trabajo.

    Dicho esto:

    El libro está super bueno. Ya sea que sabes mucho de música o si es

    Si fuera por el contenido este libro tendría sus cinco estrellas. La estrella que le falta es culpa del editor. Byrne lo dice al principio que él no es escritor y que no sabe como acomodar un libro. Pero pues para eso tienes un editor, la única falla que le veo al libro es orden. Brinca de capítulo en capítulo en temas muy diferentes. Y me parece que pudiera tener un mejor orden si el editor hubiera hecho su trabajo.

    Dicho esto:

    El libro está super bueno. Ya sea que sabes mucho de música o si estás empezando este libro te puede enseñar chingo de cosas del tema. Nunca creí que podría admirar más a Byrne, pero después de leer este libro de verdad creo que es infravalorado en el mundo de la música. Sé que es de culto pero de verdad debería tener más atención.

    La cosa es que va desde teoría musical hasta anécdotas con los talking heads y con todos los que ha hecho colaboraciones, que son muchos. Te guste o no Byrne el libro esta muy interesante. Da un panorama muy amplio de como funciona la música en todos los aspectos. Desde cifras duras hasta metáforas complejas.

    Y ahora un gif de Byrne bailando

  • Darwin8u

    ― David Byrne, How Music Works

    ― David Byrne, How Music Works

    ― David Byrne, How Music Works

    Like several nonfiction books I've read lately, my big complaint is I wish he just gave us more, dug a bit deeper, and perhaps hired a better editor. I like that the book was infused with his own populist, funky, musical biases. It seemed casual. Like talking to a really open person who isn't trying to hide or pull the shades on his own past. He didn't shy away from his own mistakes and his own life. He used Talking Heads and his own albums as examples of the different ways music can be done and sold. His interests allow this book to move from punk to African music to soundtracks, etc.

    One of my favorite themes of Byrne's reminded me of the last book I read (

    ). David Byrne seemed passionate about not just music alone, but music's place in our social networks. How music is both a communication with others and reflective of our community. In his more zen moments he even rambles on about the music of the Universe, etc. Byrne's biases were occasionally annoying. He did seem to carry a pretty large dark spot right on-top of classic music's basic repertoire. His politics, or musical reactions to politics, also seems a bit naïve. But all is forgiven, in the end. This is a guy who is not afraid to put himself WAY out there, describe the scene as he sees it, and figure out a way to make the people around him want to dance. And THAT I guess says a lot and hides a multitude of minor sins as we dance into the darkness.

  • Vicki

    There is a lot of information about musical roots and how musicians worked to perfect their sound according to what worked best with their style. I was fascinated by the facts about the designs of opera houses, concert halls and clubs.

    There are some entertaining tidbits in this book which covers not only the history but the decisions on Byrne's bands, music, and even clothing choices. It was an enjoyable read and I was provided this paperback copy by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest

    There is a lot of information about musical roots and how musicians worked to perfect their sound according to what worked best with their style. I was fascinated by the facts about the designs of opera houses, concert halls and clubs.

    There are some entertaining tidbits in this book which covers not only the history but the decisions on Byrne's bands, music, and even clothing choices. It was an enjoyable read and I was provided this paperback copy by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

    One bonus was a massive amount of personal and informational pictures. All in all I enjoyed this book.

  • Tomas Ramanauskas

    David Byrne, a legend, becomes your professor for duration of this book and delivers a fascinating deep dive into the world of music, its hows and whys. He scatters autobiographical experiences amid broadly scoped lecture on the sounds, the formats, the shapes, the evolution, even the numbers behind the recordings. It is a multi-faceted account of near child like astonishment on how this bloody thing really works.


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