How Music Works by David Byrne – Book Review

An eclectic and often engrossing collection of essays from David Byrne, best known as the principal songwriter and lead singer of the iconic American band Talking Heads. In this book, Byrne offers his perspective on the subject he’s been involved with for his entire life, music, blending social and technological history, autobiography, business strategies, technical knowledge and personal philosophy.

I should probably mention that I’m not reviewing this book as a huge or even casual fan of David Byrne or Talking Heads. I’m only familiar with a handful of the band’s most famous songs and I’ve never felt a strong desire to explore their back catalogue further (Byrne acknowledges self-deprecatingly that some people might have found his earlier yelping vocal style off-putting, and, well, I’m one of those people). The closest I got to being a fan was through Love This Giant, Byrne’s musical collaboration with Annie Clark a.k.a. St. Vincent; I even got to see their live show backed by a brass band with tightly choreographed onstage moves, which was excellent and delightfully eccentric. A big fan would undoubtedly get more out of this book, however for the most part, Byrne’s retrospective of his musical career was interesting even without having any attachment to the music.

In the opening chapter, Byrne shares an “extremely slow-dawning” insight about creation he’s had, which is that the creative output is largely determined by the context. He gives examples of how venues, be it open air, medieval cathedrals or crowded modern bars, largely dictated what kind of music would be created to suit them. In a very similar vein, the book touches on the history of the recorded music in the 20th century, and the impact of the ever-evolving technology as it moved from the early recorders to the predominant digital format nowadays. It’s rather mind-boggling to think that once, music was a completely ephemeral experience. Reading about the relationship between the recorded and live music, it was fascinating to have some unconscious assumptions questioned, for instance the notion that a studio version of a song is the “standard” while any live rendition is a mere “interpretation”.

Unlike some musicians, Byrne does not lament the rise of digital technology, even if he acknowledges that the quality suffers for the sake of convenience. He seems to take a very open-minded attitude to music in general, rejecting the idea that classical or jazz music is inherently more worthy or linked with moral and ethical values, and challenging what he calls very Western ideas about naturalness, spontaneity and authenticity. In the later chapters that deal with the social importance of music and musical education, Byrne stresses that it’s far more important to encourage people to make music, than teach reverence towards a few venerated classics.

Though the book is not strictly autobiographical, a lot of it covers Byrne’s musical journey starting from high school bands and art school endeavours, and his evolution as a recording artist and live performer, with Talking Heads or solo. There’s virtually no discussion of his personal relationships with his bandmates or later collaborators, which can make it all feel a tad dry and detached, but considering the focus of the book overall it makes sense to omit these aspects. These chapters were rather hit-and-miss for me. I enjoyed reading about the creative work and influences that went into live shows, but when the focus switched to the recording studio and the more nitty-gritty technical details of making music, I felt my attention drifting and started skipping pages.

Likewise, I didn’t really take to the section dealing with the business side, where Byrne outlines six different models for musicians to make a living and promote their music. The book was first published in 2012 and the music industry as we knew it was already in terminal decline, changed forever by the advent of digital format and streaming, so I can’t say it dated all that much. However, as much as Byrne tried to make the subject entertaining, it just didn’t hold my interest.

Skipping pages is probably inevitable in a book that covers so many wide-ranging topics, so I don’t hold it against How Music Works too much. In the end, it’s an ambitious, erudite and informative read written with a light touch; I may not be the biggest fan of Byrne’s music but there’s no doubt that he has a curious and fascinating mind.

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