A review of How Music Works by David Byrne

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

How Music Works
by David Byrne
A&U Canongate
ISBN: 9780857862525, Oct 2013, Paperback, 376pages, $29.95aud

It took me a long time to read How Music Works.  I’d read a few chapters and then put it down and read something else, coming back to it afterwards.  My slow speed was not due to any difficulty on the part of the book, though it does cover a lot of often disparate ground. How Music Works reads easily, in intimate, chatty, almost conspiratorial prose.  I think I was drawing it out to keep it with me longer, allowing each bit of wisdom to sink in, so I could think about it, apply it to what I was listening to or had listened to, and explore the correspondences.  I didn’t really want to finish.

How Music Works is a little bit of a sprawling mishmash. The title is open enough, and Byrne takes advantage of that to meander along whatever paths take his fancy, from generalised notion of artistry to physics and the music of the cosmos, to his own personal experiences as a performer, songwriter and musician.  Though the book is all over the place, it’s always erudite and enjoyable, and always pivoting on the notion of creative expression, whether it’s Byrne’s particular brand of expression or whether it’s more philosophical reflections about the universe, other artists, and music in its many forms.  Byrne himself is a fascinating enough character to hold attention when he does talk about his experiences. He charts the evolution of his many creative projects including, of course, Talking Heads, but also his early art school experiences playing bars and art openings with his ukulele and old violin, his rise to cult star at CBGBs (which gets a very thorough write-up), the creation of each album including details on how many of the songs were written, and post Heads work such as his work with Brian Eno, his theatre work with Fatboy Slim, his dance choreography with Neomie Lafrance and Twyla Tharp, and many others.

The book goes way beyond Byrne’s own experiences though. He explores the work of other artists in a great deal of detail. He explores the impact of technological change on not only how music is produced and distributed but also on how technology itself changes music and the way in which we experience it.  He explores the notion of an elitist music versus the democratisation of music, along with the critical importance of amateur music. He provides a very thorough primer on the many different types of music contracts and the ways in which music can be produced and distributed which is so well done that the chapter titled “Business and Finances: Distribution & Survival Options for Musical Artists” is a must read for any modern musician.  While exporing modern art, Byrne takes an almost mystical look at music and its origins, the sound of The Big Bang, the followers of Pythagoras (Acousmatics), Psychoacoustics, Kepler’s harmonic proportions, Tantric Buddhism’s “Sonoriferous ether”, NASA’s Symphony of the Planets, the neurological basis for music, the notion of Muzak, Marshall McLuhan’s visual culture versus aural culture, and the politics of music funding and education, to name just a few of his topics:

Wish showed that most kinds have a vast reservoir of creativity just waiting for permission to come out, waiting for a forum, a context—just like when someone opens a music club!-within which their feelings and ideas can be expressed.  It seems to me that here is where funding should go.

Many artists get a mention in this book, from Radiohead to Amanda Palmer, to John Cage, and Byrne explores it all with his usual blend of outrageous erudition, deep humility (“I have to admit that I do often wish I could read music way better than I do.”) and humorous wonder.  Though the remit of the book is diverse – moving from music industry primer including such things as the eight key factors in creating a music ‘scene’ (in case you want to open your own CBGBs or Mud Club), six modern distribution models, and three major changes that the music industry has undergone, to memoir, to philosophical treatise on the nature of music, the work is united by its delight – still quite visceral – in the ongoing variations and possibilities of creative endeavour.  Even if there were no “edifying qualities” inherent in How Music Works, it’s a pleasure to read, full of insight that will be of interest to anyone who enjoys music of any genre. However, for anyone who wants to express themselves creatively, How Music Works is a multi-layered work full of inspiration and ideas from a renaissance style master.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks and Paul W Newman is her next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.