How Music Works

Jul 25, 2018

By David Byrne, 382 pgs.

When the original version of this book was published in 2012, I chose to give it a pass. I assumed it would be a collection of pretentious musings from someone operating at a distance from the culture of DIY musical production that I value. After an expanded second edition was released in 2017, I decided to give it a try and I’m glad I did. Best known as the singer and guitarist for the Talking Heads, David Byrne is a really smart and articulate writer with lots of great insights on a wide range of aspects regarding the intersection of music and modern society.

The books starts off a little rough, with Byrne riffing on the ways in which the creative process is influenced by things such as the architecture of performances spaces. It’s an interesting idea that becomes belabored as if it was an inflated TED talk (turns out, that is exactly what it was). But then the book really starts to shine. The following chapter is entitled “My Life in Performance” and Bryne weaves together autobiographical anecdotes spanning his pre-Talking Heads ventures to recent solo outings, with serious research and deft insights.

Another chapter on “In the Recording Studio” was surprisingly informative, particularly his detailed discussion of his collaborations with Brian Eno. In general, the writing is highly accessible, but there are occasional clumsy sections where the writing seems a little too self-aware. I found the chapter on “Collaborations” a bit tedious and the chapter on “Building a Scene,” which was based off an introduction for a coffee book on CBGB, a serious let-down. Surprisingly, given the richness of that scene, Bryne is probably at his most superficial in that chapter. But the bulk of the book offers thought-provoking passages on a range of topics related to music.

The chapters on how technology has impacted music were truly fascinating, with one dedicated to analog technology and another on digital innovations. The book is less a memoir than an original scholarly study, and Byrne is not opposed to referencing important scholarship and dropping in footnotes, but the prose rarely feels cumbersome or overly academic.

The chapter on “Business and Finances” was exceptionally well done, with Byrne offering the reader deep insights on, among other things, the range of ways in which musicians can make, market, and distribute their music, from the 360-degree deal that have been utilized by the Madonnas and the Jay-Zs of this world, all the way to DIY self-distribution. When he isn’t sure of the specifics of a certain approach, he reproduces his conversations with experts like Mac McCaughan of Merge Records. Byrne concludes the chapter with in-depth dissections of his last two releases to show the specifics costs and sources of revenue, with fascinating insights.

Ultimately, the book is a little uneven, as has been Bryne’s musical output. But he is on-point far more often than he isn’t. Accessible, original, timely and fascinating are the adjectives that come to mind. And his promotion of DIY musical culture in the chapter “Amateurs!” would fit exceptionally well within the pages of Razorcake. I walked away learning a great deal, thinking in new ways, and having a deeper appreciation of Byrne himself. –Kevin Dunn (Three Rivers Press,