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How Music Works

How Music WorksHow Music Works

David Byrne

Let’s be fair: David Byrne is a musician, not a writer.  He’s certainly a thoughtful musician, but a musician just the same.  How Music Works is an interesting record of his thoughts on the history, aesthetics, culture and business of music.  Absent his body of recorded work, I don’t think it would stand very well on its own as a book.  It’s just not very focused.  But as a compliment to his body of recorded work, it shares some insight.

Which means that to really get the most out of How Music Works, I had to do some homework.  I’m fairly familiar with the Talking Heads catalog, and fairly familiar with Byrne’s collaborations with Brian Eno.  But I’d never seen Stop Making Sense, so that necessitated a trip to the library.  I didn’t know much of Byrne’s post-Talking-Heads solo work, so I tracked down a bit of that.  How Music Works is a whole lot richer for having done the background listening.

Most fascinating to me was his discussion of the co-evolution of music and architecture.  Byrne makes a compelling case that one of the major reasons Western European and African music sound so different is because of the spaces in which they were performed.  African percussive music is intensely rhythmic.  It was (and is) performed primary in outdoor spaces, free of echo, where complex rhythms won’t collide with each other.  Bring an African drum ensemble into a Gothic cathedral, and it would be a mess.  The space would be too reverberant, sounds would sustain and echo, overlap with one another differently based on volume and frequency.  Percussive music turns to cacophony in those kinds of spaces.

So Western European music — and Western European religious music in particular — developed without a strong reliance on complex rhythm.  It was written to sound good in cathedrals, which means complex harmony and sustained notes — things that sound good in spaces where sounds are drawn out and echoed.  The pipe organ is unique as an instrument built into the very architecture itself.  As the architecture guided the music, so the music guided the architecture.  Wagner had an opera house built specifically for his pieces to be performed.  Byrne draws on these sonic histories to talk about how and why CBGB became the hub of the New York art-punk scene, giving flight to acts like the Talking Heads and the Ramones.

So the book is sort of pseudo-history mixed with ethnography.  Pseudo-history because it’s not academically rigorous — citations are few and far between, and it’s more about Byrne’s interpretation and opinion of historical happenstance than it is about the history itself.  That’s okay, except the semi-scholarly delivery does as much to show what the book is not as it does to actually tell the story.  I think Byrne would have been better served to approach it more as a story teller, and to abandon the historical / ethnographic pretense.  His best musical authorship tells its stories by what it doesn’t say, and How Music Works comes across as an uncomfortable semi-academic effort that falls in the gap between exposition and storytelling, and doesn’t do either especially well.

That said, it’s still worth a read.  Overlook the clumsy delivery and the stories are there, and they’re interesting.  Important, even.  I don’t know if I’m much closer to knowing how music works, but it’s full of fodder for new ways of framing the question.