Book Review: How Music Works

I love music. I play music. I listen to music. I think about music all the time. So, I was intrigued by David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, because I know him to be thoughtful and interesting. And he doesn’t disappoint here. While I skimmed over some of the sections about the workings of his former band, The Talking Heads, I was intrigued by Byrne’s insights into the creation of music. (I enjoyed some of the work done by The Talking Heads but I would not put them on my “favorite bands” list. And I suspect that some of his former bandmates might dispute some of his stories here, given what I know about the acrimony of the band)

In particular, I found Byrne really shifting my thinking about the ways that technology has altered our relationship with music. Here’s something that I never really considered but now seems obvious: when the ability to record music and share music first began, the way that music was constructed and composed changed to the meet the constraints of the recording aperatus. For example, music on a vinyl disc (remember those?) was limited to a set amount of time, or else your ran out of space. So, songwriters and composers began to write pieces that fit the time allowed on a disc. And listeners began to get accustomed to the set time frame, too, and from that emerged the three minute pop song.

The ways that music was recorded impacted the writing of songs, too. Early microphones were set up in a room, and the band crowded around it, moving closer and farther away, depending on when your part needed to be heard. But bass tones were difficult to hear, and so the sonic construction of the music began to become part of the songwriter’s tools. And this is not just pop music. This was jazz and classical, too. The technology was changing our perceptions of what we thought we were hearing, and composers began realizing the limitations and the possibilities of the technology¬† to revamp the way that songs were composed, performed, and heard.

Byrne also goes into the way a social space (in this case, CBGB’s and New York City) can influence the creation of art, and about the business of music, which is interesting in these times when that entire business model is complete flux, and he describes his songwriting techniques of constructing songs from the sounds first, lyrics later, and aiming to use unconscious thought patterns as the springboard for a song. I found it interesting because I have done the same thing with songwriting. I just never thought of it through the same lens as Byrne.

Which brings me to the connections with all kinds of writing. One of the things that I remain fascinated with is the ways that digital tools and technology may or may not be shaping the ways we write, and what we write. How do the constraints of the tools inform our choices about the meaning of what we write? How are we taking expectations of technology and pushing at its borders in order to reconsider our traditional definitions of writing? In many ways, Byrne is exploring similar terrain, just with music. This is a smart, insightful book that forces you to move beyond music, and into the larger conversation about composition.

Peace (in the sounds),

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