How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works offers many answers to a question that I had never even asked. Now that I've read it I wonder, "How could I have gone so long without this information?" Musician and writer David Byrne crafts such an enticing collection of essays, dropping factoids and anecdotes along the way, that I was equally informed and entertained.

More of a blend of personal experience and hypothesis than a hard-line course in objective facts, Byrne tackles nearly every conceivable aspect of the art form: venues throughout history; the creative process; collaboration; recording; and business.

I was particularly taken with Byrne's thoughts on the relationship between recorded music and live performances. Which one comes to mind when you think of the word "music?" For centuries it was the live version, but for the past 120 years there has been a real tug of war for dominance.

The essay on Byrne's evolution as performer also hit home for me, as I also perform music in my free time.  He incrementally learned what his stage persona was and how best to accentuate it through dress, movement, and lyricism.

For example, Byrne actively avoids using pop song clichés like singing "Baby," in his songs because it's not something he would normally say in everyday speech. Even as a singer who throws around "Baby," like nobody's business, I can still respect his conscious choice. He's working in a slightly different tradition.

The essays are accessible, but never dumbed down. There is some technical jargon, but it always comes with an explanation. Byrne is also quick to suggest that some his theories might not always fully reflect reality, but they are still worth a ponder.

I must admit that one's appreciation of this book may directly correlate with his or her knowledge and appreciation of Talking Heads, Byrne's successful band of the late seventies and eighties, as well as his solo career.  I am a fan of the former more so than the latter, but even if you don't particularly know the song that Byrne used koala calls on, you may still be entertained.

This is the second time that I have been swept up in the contemplative meditations of Byrne's non-fiction writing. His travelogue/cycling manifesto The Bicycle Diaries offered opinions on urban planning, architecture, and ways of thinking unique to particular cities and nations. With both of these books, Byrne further cements a solid understanding of anthropology and how different cultures vary in their approaches. With music, they may have an artistic, religious, or intellectual focus, or even all three simultaneously.  

Fans of the Talking Heads who wish to seek out more might want to turn to Jonathan Lethem's 33 1/3 book Fear of Music, also published this past year. Lethem goes for a close reading of the band's third album, analyzing lyrics and writing up his own gut reactions to the music that he obsessively listened to throughout his youth.

The book asks nearly as many questions as it manages to answer, but that is the magic of an inquisitive nature. Whether you write, play, record, or listen, you will find value in How Music Works.