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David Byrne: How Music Works

Nenad Georgievski By

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How Music Works

David Byrne

Hardcover, 352 pages

ISBN: 1936365537

Canongate Books Ltd.


By definition, a renaissance man suggests a highly cultivated man of many accomplishments, someone who has a broad base of knowledge and interests, and is skilled in multiple fields or multiple disciplines. As a musician, singer, actor, film director, designer, producer, writer, activist, David Byrne is the definition of a modern day renaissance man. Byrne is a maverick thinker with a broad intellect and stellar musical achievements. His vast output and interests surpass the scope of that of a musician and delves in various other areas such as architecture, politics, arts, book writing, bicycles and design. He has written nine books on various subjects, with the latest being on the topic closest to his heart—music.

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," is a saying that has been attributed to many people, meaning that the task of music writing is an impossible one. To some it may mean that there isn't one strict way to approach this task, but a perplexing range of choices and styles. Fortunately, Byrne is an old raconteur and he delivers a brilliant exposition on music—eloquent, thoughtful, and full of revelations and fresh discoveries. His book How Music Works, like all the best writing about music, opens the ears as well as the mind.

How Music Works is Byrne's first book dedicated to the phenomenon to which he has dedicated his life's work. It is his ambitious attempt to showcase how myriad external factors have influenced the music itself, and money is just one of those factors. In the 10 chapters that this book consists of, by using a clear, accessible and engaging voice, Byrne guides and leads with delightful and insightful description of the science, architecture, technology, human relations, psychology, history, business and various other issues that lurk beneath the surface of music. Each chapter reads like an essay on various subjects related to music where Byrne, devoid of academic rigor, introduces a topic that he first describes, only to attack it from different angles and back it with his own vast experiences in music.

The 20th century brought many changes to the ways in which music was performed and heard. In the past before recordings, music was inseparable from the space in which it was performed. Music was generally heard only once and rarely again after that. It provided a background for social events, in churches and cathedrals—or, in the case of opera, offered a setting for social gatherings. Just as anything that evolves when its setting changes, the music mutated as it moved beyond the confines of concert halls and into everyday environments. "How architecture has shaped music" was the speech Byrne gave at TED talks, and here it is backed by how New York CIty's specific, famed CBGB's club influenced his music with the Talking Heads.

There are numerous details about the widening of sonic possibilities with advancements in recording, amplification and electronic instruments. Thanks to car stereos, headphones, computers, various music formats, iPods, people now move within their own soundtracks. Relying on myriad of stories, he deftly catches the way music uses technical inventions to unlock emotions. All of this is sprayed with happy occurrences, serendipities that have helped music go forward. There are plenty of anecdotes to support his stories of the forces behind musical progress, like the link between the discovery of tape machines in post WWII Germany and singer Bing Crosby's interests and necessities.

Further, many of the chapters illuminate, analyze different topics and give advice for today's musicians, from creating a scene to various business models. In the chapter "Business and Finances," Byrne discusses the crisis in the music industry and various business models by using diagrams to make his point. He very clearly explains how the music business has changed into something new where recording costs are considerably low, almost to zero, compared to studio costs in the past, as well as the irrelevance of labels, where artists can have more control over every aspect of their work than ever. Also, distribution costs in the digital era are incomparably negligible to physical warehousing. He points out that the ecosystem in which bands such as Led Zeppelin and producer Joe Boyd flourished is dead and gone, but that music is in no danger of extinction. To exemplify this he uses two of his records, Grown Backwards (Nonesuch, 2010) and Everything That Happens (Self Produced, 2011), breaking down their respective costs and sales.

Reading How Music Works is like the literary equivalent of an iPod on shuffle. It really offers fresh and unexpected stimulation at every turn. Byrne's insightful discourses on music, from very different parts and aspects of the musical spectrum, create fascinating perspectives. It is not just a deeply thoughtful and richly populated survey of music. It's a meditation on hearing itself.


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