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How Music Works by David Byrne. Book review.

How Music Works by David Byrne. Book review.

How Music Works is an exercise in infectiously enthusiastic geekery.

It reads more like a blog than a book. And, like all the best blogs, it is candid, thought provoking, biographical in parts, well researched throughout, and chock-full of unique content.

The Talking Heads frontman knows and loves his stuff.

You should read this book if you’re into music.

You should read this book if you have eclectic geeky tastes.

You should definitely read this book if you, like me, are a communications planner seeking left field ideas, reference material and inspiration. So many of the themes explored by the book are of general relevance to anyone working with any kind of creative product.

Here are some of those themes and a taster of how they are addressed by Mr Byrne.

The importance of context to an idea. (Kindle search tells me that there are 41 references to “context” in the book)

How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like: these are the things that determine not only if a piece of music works – if it successfully achieves what it sets out to accomplish – but what it is.

The adaptive nature of creativity. (95 references to “creative” or “creativity”.)

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius – the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work – seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited  to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

The importance of quirks, imperfections and human character to emotional engagement.  (79 references to “emotion” or “emotional”.)

What does being tight mean? It’s hard to define now, in an age where instrumental performances and even vocals can be digitally quantified and made to perfectly fit the beat. I realize now that it doesn’t actually mean that everyone plays to the beat; it means that everyone plays together. Sometimes a band that has played together a lot will evolve to where they play some parts ahead of the beat and some slightly behind, and singers do the same thing. A good singer will often use the “grid” of the rhythm as something to play with – never landing exactly on the beat, but pushing and pulling around and against it in ways that we read, when it’s well done, as being emotional. It turns out that not being perfectly aligned with a grid is okay; in fact, sometimes it feels better than a perfectly metric fixed-up version. When Willie Nelson or George Jones sing way off the beat, it somehow increases the sense that they’re telling you the story, conveying it to you, one person to another. The lurches and hesitations are internalized through performance, and after a while everyone knows when they’ll happen. The performers don’t have to think about them, and at some point that becomes part of the band’s sound. Those agreed-upon imperfections are what give a performance character, and eventually the listener recognizes that it’s the very thing that makes a band or singer distinctive.

The importance of performance to presentation. (294 references to variations of the word “perform”.)

PowerPoint presentations are a kind of theater, a kind of augmented stand-up. Too often it’s a boring and tedious genre, and audiences are subjected to the bad as well as the good. Failing to acknowledge that these are performances is to assume that anyone could and should be able to do it. You wouldn’t expect anyone who can simply sing to get up on stage, so why expect everyone with a laptop to be competent in this new theatrical form? Performers try harder.

The ephemeral nature of intellectual property. (9 references to “copyright”, 20 references to variations of “author”.)

Significantly, rhythm and texture are the two most difficult aspects of music to express in conventional Western musical notation. These qualities, some of the most resonant and important in contemporary popular music, and in some ways the most “African”, were excluded from, or maybe simply outside of, the system by which music was traditionally taught, passed on, notated, discussed, criticized, and – very important – copyrighted. The copyright of a musical composition is based on the top-line melody, the specific harmonies that support it, and , in the case of a song or opera, the lyrics. There is no acknowledgement of groove, sound, texture, or arrangement – all of which are features of the recorded music of our era that we listeners have come to savor and identify as integral to an artist’s work.

The importance of collaboration to creativity. (55 references to variations on the word “collaborate”).

I’ll risk disaster because the creative rewards of a successful collaboration are great. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I discovered early on that collaborating is a vital part of music’s essence and an aid to creativity.

The value in making. (99 references to “making” or “maker”.)

Most arts grants focus on the work, rather than on the process that the work comes out of. The product seems to be more important than the effect its production process has.

You get the picture. How Music Works is a veritable treasure trove of planner reference material.

Here are the book’s chapter headings:

Creation in Reverse.

My Life in Performance.

Technology Shapes Music: Analog.

Technology Shapes Music: Digital

In The Recording Studio.


Business and Finances.

How to Make a Scene.


Harmonia Mundi.

And, in addition to the themes and excerpts above, there are:

93 references to “technology”.

48 references to variations on “human”.

92 references to variations on “culture”.

77 references to “business”.

74 references to “money”.

10 references to “insight” or “insights”.

63 references to variations on “social”.

61 references to “digital” or “digitally”.

117 references to “idea” or “ideas”.

And, for me, a book-defining 56 references to “groove” or “grooves”.

It is a groovy book in that Byrne explores and plays with his topics in much the same way that I envisage him experimenting with riffs on his guitar.

He talks often and revealingly about first hand experiences and learning from Talking Heads and collaborations with many other artists. Some of this semi-autobiographical content can occasionally become slightly self-indulgent (IMHO), but that is more than compensated for by lots of rich behind the scenes content and making of anecdotes. He talks in detail about where his inspiration came/comes from and how ideas moved from concept to execution. It is usually fascinating and often riveting.

In many ways it also a “how to” book for aspiring musicians.

Not so much how to play as how to “be”.

As I mentioned above the book has much in common with great blogging.

It is often the case that the secret to good blogging is good doing. “I did that, and I learned this” is a proven formula for success.

Byrne has done and learned in spades, and he is generous in the extent to which he shares that learning.

For example in the chapter about business and finance he dissects in detail the expenses and revenue figures associated with some of his projects as in the pie chart shown below.

Image borrowed from Cool Hunting - click image for the link.


It should be obvious that I like this book a lot.

But, reading between the lines, there is also a lot to admire about Byrne himself.

He is neither arrogant nor falsely modest. The book is perfectly pitched in terms of his sense of perspective on his achievements.

And he exhibits little or no nostalgia. His overriding vibe is optimistic.

He comes across as an active artist. His desire to create remains strong. And, rather than clinging wistfully to the past, he is naturally inclined to view change as an opportunity rather than a threat. As a 46 year old in an allegedly young person’s creative industry, I draw inspiration and encouragement from that.


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