How Music Works
by David Byrne
McSweeney's, 2012, $37.95
reviewed by Alayne McGregor

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had, of course, listened to the Talking Heads, but I had never seen their ex-lead singer, David Byrne, in person until a few years ago. Byrne was on a book tour to promote a collection of essays about cycling – Bicycle Diaries – and spoke at the Ottawa Writers Festival. The book turned out to be an interesting mixture of the personal and the larger picture. In person, Byrne was modest and interesting to listen to without being dogmatic.

He's just written a second book – this time about music – and again it contains a mixture of personal experience and larger-scale musings on music as a social phenomenon and a creative spur. And its publication happens to coincide with a concert appearance by him in Ottawa, on Sunday, June 23, at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Now, Byrne is a rock musician with worldbeat and art song influences. He doesn't play jazz. But a lot of what he has to say has great relevance to jazz listeners and musicians, because the music business and the experience of listening are common to all music fans. You may listen to different styles and different instruments and in different environments, but how you find that music or get to that concert poses the same challenges and provides the same joy.

In this book, Byrne's writing ranges from fairly high-level discussions of what role music plays in society and to each of us individually (and, in that, one can see the influence of New Yorker critic Alex Ross), to very specific discussions of how he himself has succeeded in making music a career, and how the musical movements which he's been involved with have grown and flourished. On the way, he touches on an eclectic range of topics including mirror neurons, the undemocratic nature of much arts funding, non-standard musical notations like graphic scores, the creative rewards of collaboration, and much more.

The sections which particularly interested me were on

  • his songwriting process (circa page 195), in which he talks about using found texts for his Imelda Marcos project, and how he looks for words to fit pre-existing melodic fragments and then later finds emergent meanings in their combinations.
  • his comments on how the relationship of the singer and the lyrics they're singing (page 155): “It doesn't matter whether or not something actually happened to the writer – or to the person interpreting the song. On the contrary, it is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us, rather than the other way around. We don't make music – it makes us. Which is maybe the point of this whole book.”
  • his description of how he has used different business relationships – self-released CDs, traditional record deals, and other modes – to distribute recordings, and changes them depending on the type of recording. As he notes, the music business has completely altered over the last few decades, and it's interesting to read how hes managed to continue to make a living despite the occasional lousy contract. He goes through different business models in considerable detail
  • his explanation of how both licensing and sampling has actually provided a steady and important source of income for him, and why musicians should not sign away mechanical and other rights that may end up being important. I was also particularly impressed how he consistently credited other peoples' ideas in his text, and his thorough copyright credit section at the end of the book. This is an artist who recognizes the importance of copyright and giving credit.
  • the effects of technology on how we perceive music and changing perceptions of and requirements for musical fidelity, particularly in light of the increasing popularity of mp3s and decreasing sales of CDs.
  • his quote from John Philip Sousa saying that the gaps between performances might be as important – socially at least – as the performances themselves. “The times when we're not being entertained are as important as the times when we are. Too much music, or too much continuous music, might not be a good thing.” This reminded me of the musical overload one can experience during jazz festivals, for example.
  • his discussion of whether music is most properly considered “play” – ephemeral and fleeting, not the Western idea of monuments and great works. “It's an experience (again, like music), not an unchangeable fixed image. Music, in this view, is a way of living, a way of being in the world, not a thing you hold in your hand and play on a device.”

Two sections particularly relevant to jazz musicians and music promoters and venues are:

  • Chapter 1, on how spaces affect how you hear musicians. Ever heard a great club band absolutely fail in a concert hall? Wrong acoustics, wrong expectations, too far away from the audience. Ever wondered why brass-heavy bands or percussion-heavy bands sound horrible in Dominion Chalmers United Church or other very resonant spaces? The reverberation time in those spaces turns those types of music into sonic mush. Complex harmonies can sound horrible there. Byrne notes that Carnegie Hall, normally considered a very prestigious venue, is far from ideal for his music.
  • Chapter 8, on how you create a scene. Using the club CBGB in New York in the 70s as an example, Byrne proposes eight guidelines on how create a scene which allows musicians and the specific style of music they play to flourish. They include: a venue of the right size and location, low rent, artists playing original material and between-sets music that reflects the live music, bands being paid fairly, musicians getting in on their off nights for free, a sense of alienation from existing scenes, social transparency that avoids hierarchies, and having talking sections where you don't have to listen to the band. And, most important of all: “local talent of whatever type is given an outlet. It's a real testament to how much creativity we all harbor that scenes emerge the way they do,”

I like the title of this book because of its ambiguity: it could be referring to how music makes you feel a certain way, or how it's constructed, or how the business works, or how musicians play together, or more. Byrne uses this ambiguity to cover a wide variety of topics connected to music. This means that the book meanders, rather than having a specific focus or ultimate thesis which it tries to prove. It's more impressionistic. The sections don't necessarily reinforce each other.

I also thought that the sections where Byrne was able to bring in his own experience worked the best: they had the most immediacy and interest and tactility. 

The book has a number of relevant and interesting and original things to say about music as a social phenomenon, about music as a way of making a living, and about music as an object of love and an obsession – which makes it worth reading for both jazz musicians and jazz listeners.

    – Alayne McGregor