Record Collector NOVEMBER 2012 - by Jamie Atkins


Byrne, baby, Byrne: highly interesting study of the mechanics of music

As far as titles go, they rarely come as blunt and ambitious as How Music Works. One-time Talking Head and musical renaissance man David Byrne has set himself a daunting task. Happily, he proves up to the job.

Dave Eggers, novelist and founder of the publishing house McSweeney's, initially encouraged Byrne to develop his thoughts on the reality of life as a touring musician, after reading excerpts from some of the latter's on-the-road musings. In turn, Byrne decided that he could write about his experiences as a musician in a realistic way, while also attempting to explain music's universal appeal. How Music Works, then, manages to combine a musical autobiography of sorts with a satisfyingly cerebral yet highly accessible take on the way that music has evolved.

Essentially a collection of essays, each chapter delineates the effects that different factors play in the development of music. Byrne discusses the influence of environment, arguing that certain musical characteristics are born out of acoustic, physical and social necessity.

For instance, the open space in which African music has been traditionally played has ensured that extensive, intricate percussive patterns work best: the instruments can be made with materials close at hand and the music lends itself to social gatherings. in comparison, cathedrals and stadiums tend to give rise to long, droning melodies in the same key; jazz clubs forced musicians to jam around identifiable riffs in order to please the dancing crowds. Having established his points, Byrne then relates these factors to his life in music, from the limitations bands faced at CBGB, to the influence that Japanese theatre had upon his vision for Stop Making Sense.

Throughout, Byrne manages to write about some seriously intellectual subjects with a conversational air that makes How Music Works a joy to not only read, but also engage with. The reader is constantly being invited to consider things from fresh perspectives, as well as being treated to a succession of brilliant anecdotes. Here Byrne is the after-dinner speaker of musicologists' dreams as he recounts Bing Crosby's role in the advent of tape recording, or the dynamics of Talking Heads recording sessions. Detailed breakdowns of the financial burdens of touring and recording become unexpectedly engrossing reading.

Equally rewarding are Byrne's more philosophical discussions, in which he looks at the role of music beyond its entertainment value: its social importance, as well as the idea that our relationship with music is an intrinsic part of what makes us human. An insight into an endlessly erudite, creative mind, How Music Works goes so far beyond what's usually expected from a musician. The reader feels privileged to be along for the ride.