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book review

‘How Music Works’ by David Byrne

David Byrne (center) and the Talking Heads perform in New York in 1977.Richard E. Aaron/Redferns, via Getty Images/Redferns

I know how music works. Someone comes up with a pop song or a symphony or feedback, and someone else listens to it.

David Byrne knows a few more things, and he’s written a book about them. Does that sound vague? For the better part of 40 years Byrne has demonstrated how satisfying hard-to-define work can be, most famously as co-founder of Talking Heads, a band that made improbable sense of funk, minimalism, worldbeat, and pop.

His new book, “How Music Works,” is as engaging as it is eclectic: a buoyant hybrid of social history, anthropological survey, autobiography, personal philosophy, and business manual, sometimes on the same page. That’s a lot of angles on a subject Byrne acknowledges in his preface is completely ephemeral: We hear a sequence of notes, and we’re touched. We’re changed. Even for the most ardent explorers (and Byrne is one) this is some seriously unknowable territory.

He writes instead about how everything outside of the music — venues and technology and money and culture — influences not just our experience of it, but how music evolves. Chapter one is titled “Creation in Reverse’’ and expands on a talk that Byrne gave about the impact of architecture on musical innovation at a TED (technology, entertainment and design) conference. His premise is that there is an adaptive aspect of creativity — that we make art, consciously or unconsciously, to fit the available venue. It’s no wonder medieval composers hadn’t yet developed complex harmonies, according to Byrne. They would have sounded dreadful in a gothic cathedral, where sound reverberates and notes pile up like so much auditory oatmeal.


For Byrne the defining venue was CBGB, the late great New York City rock club, where he first performed his own songs. “People drink, make new friends, shout, and fall down, so the performers had to play loud enough to be heard above that.”


Well, yeah. Self-evident as some of Byrne’s ruminations seem, they add up to a fresh creativity calculus, one based on an expansive view of how and when and why we make things. He doesn’t dismiss the romantic ideal of a passionate individual creating in solitude, nor the value of a work of art in isolation. But Byrne does make a persuasive case that it’s context – “Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?” – that determines whether a piece of music works.

Happily, he tests his notions and observations against his own experiences as a writer and performer. My guess is that Byrne, now 60, isn’t the sort of artist who would be inclined to rehash the past in a standard-issue autobiography, but “How Music Works” provides an ideal framework, intellectually sound and in the service of ideas, for reflections on the author’s creative life.

Of Talking Heads’ early, radically stripped-down aesthetic, he muses, “With the objectionable bits removed, does it then become more ‘real’? More honest? I don’t think so anymore. I eventually realized that the simple act of getting on stage is in itself artificial, but the dogma provided a place to start. We could at least pretend we had jettisoned our baggage (or other people’s baggage, as we imagined it) and would therefore be forced to come up with something new. It wasn’t entirely crazy.”


Clearly not. Byrne became an adventurous cross-pollinator, and he unpacks projects with Brian Eno, Caetano Veloso, Fatboy Slim, various choreographers, filmmakers, fine artists, and designers in a chapter that opens with this dry admission: “The online magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. This wasn’t intended as a compliment — though to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth.”

Like the author’s artistic trajectory, “How Music Works” tends toward the haphazard. Byrne’s PowerPoint-style primer on how to make a “scene” (free beer is crucial) is sandwiched between chapters featuring a sobering dissection of music business economics (the detailed financial breakdown of one of Byrne’s albums should be required reading for aspiring musicians) and provocative discourse on classism, arts funding, and education. A pair of essays about technology’s role in shaping music, from wax cylinders to MP3s is downright illuminating. Gold stars for those who already know that vibrato became popular with the advent of recording as a way to mask wobbly pitch.

Bigger questions and softer answers have been saved for the final chapter, “Harmonia Mundi,’’ where Byrne, attempting to articulate how fundamental music is to human life, draws a fuzzy line connecting the Big Bang and the Bible with the essential nature of sound. In the beginning there was the Word, mind you, not a drawing or a dance. Astronomy, mathematics, Pythagoras, ritual, scales, and mirror neurons are also explored. At one point Byrne floats the possibility that corporate pop, with its endless recombinant stream of familiar hooks and beats, returns authorship to the ether and listeners to the notion that our universe is permeated with music. Whoa.


So where does all of this get us? How do we measure the success of a book that is both a work of scholarship and a personal manifesto, a motley repository of fact and inquiry and theory and perception? Maybe the same way we measure the success of a song. Does it move you? Does it make you think? Are you going to tell your friends about it? Yes, yes, and yes.

Joan Anderman wrote about music and the arts for the Boston Globe from 1998-2010. She can be reached at joan@middlemojo.com.