When I first picked up David Byrne’s How Music Works, visions of detailed David Macaulay-style cross-sections of songs danced through my head. Hidden pipes conducting melodies to their proper destinations, subterranean bellows pumping bass tones, as well as various other inscrutable instruments designed and put in place solely to ensure that the song keeps running smoothly, that the emotions are delivered effectively and with minimal loss. Absurd, to be sure, though it’s possible I was also a little skeptical that one book could successfully deal with such an expansive topic — 300 pages or so didn’t seem like quite enough space. But after reading the first few sections, I realized my mistake: I had automatically (and wrongfully) conflated “how” with “why,” assuming that Byrne meant to explain the mysterious inner-workings at the heart of music, and thereby elucidate that ineffable connection we all have felt with one song or another at various times in our lives. This indeed would have been a fool’s errand, and it’s obvious from the get-go that Byrne is anything but a fool.
What we get instead is a collection of pleasantly meandering conversations on a wide variety of musical phenomena. Byrne writes at an easygoing lilt — it feels like he could be talking to you at a bar as easily as putting his thoughts down on paper. This tone is present from the preface onward and immediately alleviates any fear of authoritative professorial missives on music handed down from on high to you, the lowly reader. In its place, we have such delightful asides as this:
“There are plenty of beautiful pieces of music that I can’t listen to because they’ve been ‘ruined’ by bad words…On my own song ‘Astronaut,’ I wrap up with the line ‘feel like I’m an astronaut,’ which seems like the dumbest metaphor for alienation ever. Ugh.”
I’m afraid that going forward, anyone writing a book on music who doesn’t incorporate the word “ugh” into their lexicon is dead to me.
One of the themes that Byrne develops over the course of the book is the sneakily powerful effects that technological developments have had on music, both in the way it is composed and how we experience it in our daily lives:
“The world is awash with (mostly) recorded sounds. We used to have to pay for music or make it ourselves; playing, hearing, and experiencing it was exceptional, a rare and special experience. Now hearing it is ubiquitous, and silence is the rarity we pay for and savor.”
He spends a lot of time on this communal aspect of music. Back before music could be physically recorded, you actually had to play an instrument (or be with someone who could) to hear a song. Not only that, but it was a one-time deal, something that could never be replicated again in the exact same manner. This lent it an appropriately ethereal tinge which went part-and-parcel with the mysterious and powerful emotions it could generate in us. With the advent of recording technology, music became standardized in people’s heads as a direct result of being able to play and replay it — or rather, listen to other people play and replay it — at any time and in any place. A mentality of definitive authenticity arose around songs recorded on albums. This in spite of the fact that, as Byrne recounts from his days in Talking Heads, bands were recording a lot of this music in a context that couldn’t be more different from how it was performed live: sonically isolating each instrument from the others for better fidelity or playing one instrument alone so that it could be put together with other solo instruments further down the line to create the final recording. It would seem we record to dissect.
Byrne also laments that the waning habit of regularly playing music with other people and actively participating in its creation, as people have become loath to play “inferior” versions of songs when they can hear the so-called “real” thing on their stereo by just pushing play. Worse, with school budgets for music classes being slashed continuously and across the board over the past few years, we’re faced with the dismal prospect of fewer and fewer people even being able to play or compose music of their own.
To be clear, Byrne is not some Luddite out to bemoan technology’s deplorable effects on musical creativity. He goes out of his way to praise the role it has played in his own career, from the utility of mp3s (for both artists and consumers) to the possibility for transcontinental musical collaborations that has been created via the internet. But he is rightfully wary of how easily that same technology can reduce our conception of music to ones and zeroes, dollars and cents, and in so doing take away that particular sense of awe that no other art form can deliver quite so powerfully — and communally. It’s this belief in music’s crucial vitality that really shines through all of Byrne’s writing here, and it has obviously played a foundational role in his own life. Through all his recollections of recording sessions, lyrical brainstorms, and countless collaborations with myriad musicians (as he gleefully mentions, “The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos”), it’s clear that music has brought him a joy that could not have been found anywhere else. For all its fascinating technological and philosophical musings, what’s truly great about How Music Works is that it’s constantly encouraging you to partake in that joy, too.
Should you need me, I’ll be at my drumset.