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David Byrne: How Music Works

David Byrne's epic reflection on his art form

by Perrin Drumm
on 19 September 2012

David Byrne has added yet another accomplishment to a CV that includes musician, former Talking Heads frontman, creator of the record label Luaka Bop, photographer, artist, film director and author, with his new follow-up book to "Bicycle Diaries" (2010), "How Music Works," available today. The two-pound, 344-page work is in part a historical exploration of music's origins, part intellectual analysis of the evolution of music, part nuts-and-bolts number-crunching and insight into the inner workings of the music industry, and part reflection on his personal experience as a writer and performer of music. Though Byrne draws on his own career to furnish examples and tell stories that illustrate the larger points he seeks to make here, "How Music Works" is not an autobiography. His goals are much larger. "How music works, or doesn't work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist), but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it," Byrne notes in the preface. "How it's performed, how it's sold and distributed, how it's recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works–if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish–but what it is."


Byrne goes as far back as 45,000 years to images of music-making in Neanderthal cave dwellings to examine the path a piece of music takes and all the external factors that influence it before it reaches our ears. These include things we're familiar with, like writing, the creative process, collaboration and technology, but also evolutionary variations and advancements we don't necessarily think of right away. The emergence of crooning, for example, was made possible by advancements in microphone technology that allowed for Elvis' intimate, low-toned seductions and the whispered vocals of musicians like João Gilberto. Byrne also points out how CBGB owner Hilly Kristal's simple "play for the door" agreement between the venue and the bands "opened the door just a crack and allowed the emergence of a scene." For Talking Heads fans these CBGB flashbacks are scattered like gems throughout the book. Though it's easy to immortalize that time in the 1970s when the Bowery was a scary place where a group of talented young musicians was able to experiment and grow, Byrne remarks that "It wasn't like a movie, where everyone's constantly hopping from one inspirational moment or exciting place to the next and consciously making a revolution…but I was conscious that I and many others were rejecting much of the music that had come before us, and that this sentiment was pervasive at that time. But so what? Everyone was doing that in their own way, rejecting things and moving on. It's just a part of discovering who you are; it's nothing special."


Unlike the nitty-gritty chapters on album royalties and licensing, these chapters are more universal. Personal growth and discovery as an artist and musings on the creative process are applicable not only to musicians, but to painters, filmmakers, writers, designers and anyone working in a creative field, and Byrne's passages on how creativity works are some of the best in the book. Unlike other texts on the subject, Byrne's gets specific without reservation. He writes about how he sometimes brings a recorder with him on his jogs on the west side or in his car, on the rare occasion that he's not riding his bike, of course. No doubt musicians will find textbook wisdom here, but non-musicians and even people who don't like his music to begin with can appreciate the combination of thorough research, practical knowledge and personal reflection that make reading "How Music Works" a deeply gratifying experience. And even though Byrne probe's every facet of music he doesn't suck it dry. "Does asking oneself these questions in an attempt to see how the machine works spoil the enjoyment? It hasn't for me. Music isn't fragile. Knowing how the body works doesn't take away from the pleasure of living."

"How Music Works is now available on Amazon.

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