“How Music Works” by David Byrne


Just spent a lazy Saturday morning finishing a great book by David Byrne, called “How Music Works”. For any of you who aren’t familiar with DB, he was the frontman with the Talking Heads in the seventies and eighties and has made a lot of interesting music since, often collaborations with artists from all over the world.

The Talking Heads are one of my favourite bands, and to help you through this blog here’s one of my favourite tracks, “Cross-eyed and Painless” from their fourth album, “Remain in Light”.

It’s a fascinating book which begins with DB’s observations about how environment shapes music and has done so ever since music began, which is basically ever since life began. It seems obvious when you read it, but then you think, hmmm, I’d not thought of it like that before. There’s some interesting stuff on how technological advances, likewise, have changed the way music is made and what it is designed for. There’s a great example of how certain types of rap music today have to be able to boom out of the car speakers. So the beats and sounds are tailored appropriately. Made to measure!

And I hadn’t realised that on the early phonographs you could record your own music as well as play the records. Then the manufacturers took that away because they wanted consumers, not producers.  It’s come full circle of course.

There are some insightful chapters on DB’s own musical development, from the time he made discordant soundscapes in his bedroom. As a Talking Heads fan it’s really interesting to read about the band’s evolution, especially how, in the period I like most – “Fear of Music”, “Remain In Light”, “Speaking in Tongues” – they became more experimental with the sounds (Eno lurking in there), took on more players, especially live, but remained grounded in the groove. I love the way DB describes this, how the beat doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact won’t be in the most memorable performances, even though digitisation forces it that way. Being tight means being together. Losing yourself in that togetherness. He describes how as the band got bigger, he, as lead singer and guitarist, could lose himself more in the music, experiencing “a kind of ecstatic release”. It’s really quite inspirational reading.

There are some fascinating reflections on how the business of making and selling music has evolved, again driven in many ways by the technology. The relative economics of recording and of live performance is constantly shifting. We are in an era now where, as the cost of recording drops and people expect lower prices – or no price at all – for their recorded music, live shows assume greater importance as money generators. But how many artists will be able to make big money from that? It all means that the relationship between artist and record company and retailer is all over the place (though one constant is that the retailer always gets a massive cut, iTunes as much as Tower/HMV before it). DB outlines six different models that an artist might follow these days to get his or her music out there to the public, and survive financially.  Again, really interesting stuff.

At the heart of the book is a strong belief in the importance of playing music. Not just listening, consuming, being told what is high art and what isn’t. There’s a lovely chapter about how to create a music scene locally, which draws heavily on DB’s experience of CBGBs, in New York’s Bowery in the seventies. Memories! But he is at his most inspiring when he talks about the transformative power of playing music, expressing one’s feelings through music. The importance of collaboration, the creation of communities, the channelling of anger, frustration, that might otherwise lead to despair and violence. He cites research that shows how creating music – doesn’t have to be brilliant, it’s the process that matters – stimulates certain parts of the brain and can help develop creative problem-solving skills. Crucial life skills. There’s a manifesto here. A study at Vanderbilt University in the US apparently showed that:

“…. arts majors developed more creative problem-solving skills than students from almost any other area of study. Risk-taking, dealing with ambiguities, discovering patterns, and the use of analogy and and metaphor, are skills that are not just of practical use for artists and musicians. Creative problem-solving… is an essential survival skill. If one believes, as I do, that creative problem-solving can be learned, and is something that can be applied across all disciplines, then we are chopping our children’s legs off if we slash the budgets for classes in the arts and humanities. There’s no way these kids will be able to compete in the world in which they are growing up.”

I think David Byrne’s right.  We need much more than the educational basics, important though they are.  We need the arts both for people as individuals, but collectively too. How are we going to break out of recession long term, continue to innovate, without encouraging creativity, questioning, collaboration, a bit of risk-taking?

Then DB goes all cosmic on us at the end of the book, but in a good way! How fundamental is music, its structures, to the world? There are analogies with the periodic scale of elements, there are relationships between music and maths, there is sound and music all around us in the world. Ancient philosophers like Pythagoras thought that music was a divine creation that shared properties with the arrangement of the solar system!

There’s a contrast DB makes, between visual and acoustic culture, which I like. (It draws on the work of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher specialising in communication). Visual culture has a perspective, a vanishing point. Acoustic culture is multi-layered, all round you with no centre or focal point. “In an acoustic universe one senses essence, in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies”. It takes me back to what DB was saying about the groove. Not a perfect beat, but a feel. The thesis is that increasingly we have become a visual culture and maybe we need a bit more of the acoustic. He quotes a wonderful story about a nine year old boy in New York who was born without sight and how he relates to the world musically. A fax machine whirrs in the key of A, a copier in B flat. When asked to describe New York he says:

“New York is a circle of sounds… there is music everywhere. Everybody has a smile on their face. It’s musical, it’s dark and so beautiful.”

How brilliant is that?

“How Music Works” is a book that reminds me how much and why I love music.  It makes me want to understand more about the theories and structures, as well as confirming in so many ways why it is a passion for me. It gives me inspiration to continue writing my book on my musical journey and to share my thoughts with you about music on this blog. And it shames me for not having made my own music yet, while reassuring me that just sitting there playing acoustic guitar, improvising, is a good thing in its own right.

And of course it reminds me what a great man David Byrne is, and what a brilliant band Talking Heads were. The music lives on…


About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. I’ve written a novel called “The Decision”, a futuristic political thriller, and first of a trilogy. I’m also the author of a book on music since the 1970s called “ I Was There - A Musical Journey” and a volume of poetry about youth, “Growin’ Up - Snapshots/ Fragments”. All available on Amazon and Kindle.
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6 Responses to “How Music Works” by David Byrne

  1. DyingNote says:

    Super, John! I had read a Wired article on his thoughts on music a few years back and I enjoyed that thoroughly. I’ll go ahead and get this book. Thank you

  2. Crosseyed and Painless says:

    Wow. Nice piece, John – really thought-out, and brilliantly articulated.

    The book sounds great, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Like you, I have so much admiration for Byrne, and for all that he has brought to music over so many (forty? blimey) years.

    I agree about the golden period when they gave His Enoness the keys to the studio, though the earlier albums (I love More Songs About Buildings and Food) are also great. They hold up incredibly well, too – I still listen to them, and find myself singing them in the tub. Not a pretty thought, I know.

    Byrne’s always been a brilliant speaker, and theorist, about music, and you make the book sound really rich and intriguing. Can’t wait to get it.

    Right. To memories. Where’s that vinyl Remain in Light……


    • John S says:

      Thanks a lot Jon. I love the first two albums too. ‘Psycho Killer” is still T.Heads signature tune after all. Will try to remember the book on Wednesday!

  3. Sounds like another interesting book I don’t have time to read. I like the Talking heads music. As familiar as the track you provided is, I must say it seemed like a 1st listen for me. Keep writing your book and if you put some music you make on your blog, I’d love to listen!

  4. John S says:

    Give me until about 2015 for real music! Might be some podcasts before that…

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