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How Music Works Hardcover – September 12, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: It's no surprise that David Byrne knows his music. As the creative force behind Talking Heads and many solo and collaborative ventures, he's been writing, playing, and recording music for decades. What is surprising is how well his voice translates to the page. In this wide-ranging, occasionally autobiographical analysis of the evolution and inner workings of the music industry, Byrne explores his own deep curiosity about the "patterns in how music is written, recorded, distributed, and received." He is an opinionated and well-educated tour guide, and the resulting essays--on topics from rockers' clothes to the role of the turntable, concert stages to recording studios--will give you an entirely new perspective on the complex journey a song takes from conception to your iPod. --Neal Thompson

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Most people know idiosyncratic, Scottish-born David Byrne as the front man of that great new wave band, Talking Heads. But he is also an author, painter, photographer, and film and record producer. In this wide-ranging celebration of the power of music, he discusses, among many topics, the early days of the recording industry, various types of music venues, birdsong and whale calls, the significance of mixtapes, the development of CDs, his love of African rhythms, and the concept of creativity and what it means to be creative. But he also mentions his own career as well as the many collaborators he has worked with, including English musician and producer Brian Eno, Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso, and DJ Fatboy Slim. He describes the origin of his twitchy stage persona and acknowledges his own shyness, describing himself as “a withdrawn introvert,” whose most comfortable way of communicating was, he says, onstage. (“Poor Susan Boyle; I can identify,” he writes). At one point, he even self-diagnoses himself as having a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. He concludes by asking provocative questions: What is music good for? Why do we need music? “Funding future creativity is a worthy investment,” he insists. Endlessly fascinating, insightful, and intelligent. --June Sawyers

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: McSweeney's (September 12, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1936365537
  • ISBN-13: 978-1936365531
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 7.1 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (186 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #57,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

168 of 180 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Debra Jan Bibel TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 6, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Byrne begins his wide-ranging historical, technological, psychological and sociological examination of music with a novel insight: architecture of musical venues shape composition and instrumental arrangements. Regarding huge gothic cathedrals, intimate nightclubs, and jungle camp sites, room reverberation, volume of space, and audience vocal ambience dictate modal versus scale works, instrument development, and performance dynamics. The great revolutionary divide was recording technology, and musicians discovered that what works live does not necesarily achieve the same result on vinyl, tape, CD, or .mp3, and vice versa. Expectations often lead to disappointment and the performance and performer suffers. With such an interesting introduction, the book offers much promise. It almost fulfills expectations with both personal and general tidbits and theses that reward the reader, though for myself his personal examples are somewhat weaker.

The second chapter is an musical autobiographical section describing the evolution of his music and stage attire over the succeeding eras of rock. In his world travels, his encounter with Japanese and Balinese traditional music and theatre art had a profound influence on the development of his stage craft. One of his suits clearly had classic Japanese origins.

Chapters 3 and 4 return to musicology with an expansion of the role of technology, recording and playback. The historical account is amusing when considering the delusions of reality instilled by each new device on the unconditioned and uneducated ear.
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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful By David M. Scott on September 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is David Byrne week for me. On Sunday, I caught the sensational David Byrne and St. Vincent show at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. The last time I saw Byrne live was when I caught the Talking Heads on August 19, 1983 at the old Forrest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York City. So, clearly I was already a Byrne fan.

How Music Works

The other part of David Byrne week is his fabulous new book How Music Works. The book is Byrne's take on the industry he's succeeded in. He offers keen observations about the music industry, the art of making music, telling stories in the book using a combination of history, anthropology, and music theory. I love this book!

In particular, Byrne has a fascinating take on the development of music, which is quite different from what other music historians say. In a chapter titled "Creation in Reverse" he argues that music evolves to fill the space where it is performed.

For example, the Talking Heads evolved in the 1970s at New York punk club CBGB requiring volume to overcome the din. The sparse music that came out of the CBGB scene such as the Ramones and Television worked perfectly for that room.

Music that evolved in gothic cathedrals (lots of reverberation) has long notes with no key changes. Carnegie Hall and other similar rooms require texture. With discos, people made music to exploit the fantastic sound systems and people's need to dance. Rock music played in hockey arenas (the worst acoustics on the planet) must be straightforward with medium tempos. You get the idea. The music that is successful works perfectly for each venue.

With personal sound systems (starting with the Walkman in the 1970s then evolving into MP3 players such as the iPod), all of a sudden you can hear every single detail.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By stutron on September 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Let me begin by saying I wouldn't consider myself a David Byrne/Talking Heads fan. I deeply admire and respect Mr. Byrne as an artist and he would be the kind of person I could listen to ramble on hours about music. Well, this is the closest I'll ever get to that conversation. Be forewarned, those looking for a tell-all about his time with Talking Heads or as a solo musician will be generally disappointed, I found his personal anecdotes generally the weakest part of the book. This did not make me want to rediscover his works the way Keith Richards' Life had me digging through every Rolling Stones record ever made.

What this book offers are fascinating musings, anecdotes and his personal thoughts (infused with his dry wit) on music that made it difficult to put the book down for any length of time. The writer of Psycho Killer discusses psychoacoustics (the study of how the brain perceives sounds), how Bing Crosby's love for golf advanced recording technology, and how the record companies' greed forced MTV to stop broadcasting videos and get into the reality TV business.

I think there are flaws in this book but from one of the most cerebral musicians working today, it is still a great read and one I'm telling every musician and music geek I know to read this book!
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jiang Xueqin on April 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"How Music Works" by musician, artist, and author David Byrne begins very strongly, and the opening chapters are crisply written and informative. The author discusses how different music was designed for different venues (which is a revelation to those of us who grew up in a time of digital recorded music that we can download off the Internet), and offers a brief history of the development of music. From then on, the book struggles to find its identity. The author discusses his own musical background, the development of the music of his band, the beginning of recorded music, the onslaught of digitalization, and even offers rants against conservatives who believe that the only good music are classical and some forms of jazz. Without a coherent structure and organization, this book doesn't really hold the attention of the reader, and I found myself desperately wanting to maintain interest but ultimately unable to do so.
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