How Music Works : This really is tremendous

How music works coverHow music works by David Byrne is simply excellent, and I recommend it broadly for those interested in the making of music, or any of the other commercially-performed arts.

In the first chapter, Byrne discusses how architecture changed music, and music changed architecture.This is, of itself, fascinating, but it’s an extended metaphor for his main thesis, which is that given creativity is opportunistic, the environment in which art is profitable determines the shape art will take. By opportunistic, he means that it responds to social and commercial signals. The way that people now experience music, as single track, MP3 downloads, through poor speakers that embedded in their ear canals, has as much influence on how music is created, performed, and sold as the structure of cathedrals did.

Byrne then recounts his life up to the formation of his most famous band, the Talking Heads.This seems a segue from his main argument, but it gives his later statements the authority of an industry professional. This is an ongoing element in the structure of this book: it keeps pausing for some more memoir. I can see why the average reader, more familair with the author’s work than I am, would find this appealing,

Chapter three describes how the mechanisms for recording in analogue changed the way music was performed. Crooning vocals, larger orchestras, vibrato singing, and so many other things which seem a normal part of modern music, are described as artifacts of technological limitations. This continues to build on the core theme.

Byrne examines how the modern audience sees the recording as the primary version of each song, not the live performance of that song. There is a section where he notes the shift of music from something people did, to something people experienced. There is a question, from that time, about if private music was an embarrassing, onanistic indulgence. He moves on to how digital recording, and portability, changed music. Byrne seems to predict chillstep and dubstep. Silence, now so rare, becomes more valuable than music, because music is now everywhere.

At this point, Byrne breaks for more biography, including his philosophy of writing and performing music. He discusses the process of creating Remain in light, one of the earliest albums made via sampling the works of others. Again, interesting, but not part of his core argument. The book concludes with technologies that create music without a composer or performer and compares them to medieval and classical ideas of music being something that emerges spontaneously from creation, or instigates Creation. It’s a weak ending to an otherwise excellent read: wandering off into the mystical and vauge to conclude a book which has, so far, been incisive and illuminating.

This is easy to recommend to a broad audience, particularly those interested in the author’s musical work, the history of music, of the commercial performance of art.

The Library Service has copies of this book, and more information is available on the author’s website.