Book Review: How Music Works

How Music Works
by David Byrne. 352 pages. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2012. Hardcover, $32.

Measuring 7.1" by 1.6" by 9.1" and with an attractive paper-over-board cover, [Talking Heads founder] David Byrne's boldly titled new book resembles the textbooks often found in public-school classrooms. If not for the author's brief lapses into street talk—he uses the word shit just a bit too freely for the youngest readers—one gets the impression that Byrne wouldn't mind having his book taught in elementary school. He quotes from Oliver Sacks's brilliant Musicophilia: "For the vast majority of students, music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing."

At his best, Byrne writes in a smooth, easy, conversational tone, and supports his ideas with anecdotes from his own career. As such, the book is as much a series of essays as it is an autobiography, and it begins with the time-tested passion and clear-eyed focus you'd expect from someone who's devoted his entire life to making and exploring music.

In the book's first several pages, Byrne makes such good sense. "How music works, or doesn't work," he writes, "is determined not just by what it is in isolation . . . but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. 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 . . . but what it is."

Byrne dismisses the notion that great art emerges from uncontrollable creative urges, and instead argues that artists, unconsciously and instinctively, make their work fit preexisting formats. He writes, "It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius—the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work—seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context."

It's strange, then, that Byrne and his editors didn't apply the same thinking to this book. How Music Works lacks overall coherence and vision; it would have benefited from more aggressive editing and a more thoroughly considered structure. There are far too many obvious typos, and worse, there are far too many unsupported ideas, too many loose ends. Had the book been subtitled Assorted Thoughts and Anecdotes, for instance, or maybe even Speaking in Tongues, the reader would have been better prepared for the sometimes fruitless journey, and the author could be forgiven his meandering. As it stands, reading How Music Works is almost like attending a hard-rock performance in a classical-music venue: It feels exciting and even slightly dangerous, but it's also remarkably imperfect and, at times, way too messy. And that's a shame, because when Byrne is at his best, he's got some really interesting ideas.

Musicians, in particular, will find inspiration, encouragement, and wisdom in Byrne's discussions of collaborative songwriting, distribution models, and building a thriving music scene. He outlines costs, provides guidelines, and effectively demonstrates that there's still money to be made in the music industry: "A life in music . . . is indeed still possible."

Certain audiophiles, however, will cringe when Byrne admits to getting rid of his CDs and LPs in favor of MP3s—for the most part, he listens to music on his computer or phone. But while Byrne appreciates the allure of physical media, he hopes its obsolescence will have a benefit: As music becomes more ephemeral, perhaps listeners will again assign greater value to live performance. Further, Byrne muses, "I can be moved to tears by a truly awful recording or a bad copy of a good recording. Would I be moved even more if the quality were higher? I doubt it. So why bother?" Finally, Byrne wonders if "the fuzziness and ambiguity inherent in low-quality signals" actually helps to produce a greater bond between the music and the listener: "an intimacy and involvement becomes possible that perfection might have kept at bay."

Listening intently may not be all it's cracked up to be. Byrne sees greater value in music freed from the rock club or concert hall, allowed to exist "as a constant element in the world, rather than as a finite recording or performance." In turn, the listener can come and go as he or she pleases, and can even become a part of the music. In 2005, Byrne presented Playing the Building, an interactive sound installation that successfully transformed an old warehouse into an instrument: girders as strings, columns as gongs, plumbing as flutes, and so on.

But Byrne is unable to maintain his fiery, provocative pace, and is, alarmingly often, surprised by his own ideas. On p.155, almost halfway through the book, he practically stumbles into an interesting thought: "We don't make music—it makes us. Which is maybe the point of this whole book."

Maybe? Well, is it or isn't it? And, if it is, why did you wait so long to tell us?

Ultimately, How Music Works does more to describe how its author works than to uncover music's peculiar methods; and while the book can be enjoyed if read straight through from beginning to end, casual browsing offers greater rewards: Pick a page and stumble, with Byrne, on one of his many provocative insights.

Just don't expect to learn how music really works. That remains a wonder—same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

WJ ARMSTRONG's picture

Even the biggest Talking Heads fan (i.e. me) would have to admit this book is pretty poor, and actually rather dull.

I also find DB's thoughts that good sound quality may actually in fact act as a hindrance to communication a bit surprising. Most of his recorded output has been very carefully crafted sonically, often utilising top record producers & highly-paid engineers, as well as famous & expensive recording studios.

I guess it's true that earlier 'lower-fi' material like '77' say or 'More Songs about Buildings and Food', sound equally charming nomatter the playback equipment, but many of the subtelties of later heavier-layered releases like 'Remain in Light' come into much clearer focus the better the system.

Like a lot of musicians I suspect Byrne might be trying to convince himself to a degree that the ending of unlimited recording budgets (and tripping around a slew of international & glamorous locations) will not be missed - that the bedroom studio really is the new Power Station... He protests a little too much I think.

DoggyDaddy's picture

Nicely said - I agree.

stella's picture

I read about a 1/3 of it and was completely bored. I'm not even sure how this was published as I can devour even the most stale reads on academic mastering. Sounds like I did a good quit on the book. He's always trying to be ahead of the game and there's no way he'd admit to liking vinyl or any other medium that would link to an audiophile. He has to explain why badly recorded music is good to "him". 


Sorry, just because you were in one of my favorite bands of all time does not mean his word is gospel, nor big suits cool.

the spark's picture

David Byrne's biggest fan is David Byrne.  What an inarticulate, self-impressed boob.  Seriously, find someone worth writing a review about.  It sort of sucks that his history with Talking Heads makes you think he has import in the "history of rock" to the degree that he get a post; and that is only an East Coast bias, because they were in actuality a midling band only the sycophants loved.  Did you see his "work" on PBS's Sessions, Stephen?  As your contemporary, I take umbrage at this selection for your written effort.  So many other artists deserve your attention.  David Byrne isn't one of them. Next...

WJ ARMSTRONG's picture

Talking Heads: "A middling band?". Erm... By any chance did David Byrne run over your puppy when you were a kid ?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Did you see his "work" on PBS's Sessions, Stephen?

No. How was it?

As your contemporary, I take umbrage at this selection for your written effort.

As my contemporary? You take umbrage? That seems a little intense.

So many other artists deserve your attention.  David Byrne isn't one of them.

Let me decide that. I enjoyed the book and even recommend it to my closest friends. I recommend it to readers, as well, with the caveats mentioned in my review. Being a music lover and having played in a punk rock band, I found a lot—a LOT—in Byrne's book that was intelligent, useful, insightful, and even fascinating. I also think there were some unfortunate loose ends and some questionable theories. But David Byrne has accomplished some great things—both with Talking Heads and in other collaborations—and, in my opinion, he has earned this platform. I just wish the entire book was as careful and fleshed out as the introduction and the sections on business and finance and creating a scene.


the spark's picture

I really do need to put a breathalyzer on my browser to prevent drunk-posting.  I do recommend, however, that you seek out some of the early Sessions shows for his "interviews."  Painful doesn't even begin to describe that circus side-show.  But that really is a discussion for another day and isn't relevant to the book review. 

Stephen Mejias's picture

No worries. I'm way too sober whenever I leave comments here. 

I'll check out those Sessions interviews. Thanks.

ken mac's picture

I greatly enjoyed this book. Byrne's tips on "how to make a scene" is an excellent primer for anyone hoping to foster a creative music scene in their hometown; his brief history of playback devices is entertaining (Louis Armstrong blew solos 15 feet behind the band cause he was so powerful); and his various musings on the creative process in general is fun, though a bit barmy at times, like Byrne himself. But the idea that music is written to fit a locale or preexisting standard struck me as wrong. The musicians arrive, become inspired and shit happens. The locale might stoke the furnace, but it doesnt' create the flame.  

Et Quelle's picture

Sounds like ideas of nothing. Everyone minds wonder and when Byne's does, it's a book's worth of crap [can't really apply punch]. It must totally fit the "book by its cover" saying. Anyway, who cares, I just made this my exception to the "nothing nice to say" rule. devil

ken mac's picture

The level of animosity in some of these comments is, uh, curious, to say the least. Geesh!

dalethorn's picture

"You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything."

"When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed."

"Say something once, why say it again?"

Lee Horton's picture

"I found a lot—a LOT—in Byrne's book that was intelligent, useful, insightful, and even fascinating."

I too found a lot of the information thought provoking. Perhaps that is what others have found troublesome, they think of music as entertainment. DB considers it from the perspective of a creative occupation. He has certainly lived up to making his career one built on creativity, more so since he has been a solo artist.

He has taught us that creativity is based on hard work.

Lee Horton