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How Music Works Hardcover – September 12, 2012
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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
*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 He describes the origin of his twitchy stage persona and acknowledges his own shyness, describing himself as “a withdrawn introvert,” whose most comfortable way of communicating was, he says, onstage.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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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. This allowed pop music to evolve from its early radio form.
Byrne has a 2010 TED Talk on this idea: "How architecture helped music evolve."
How Content Works
As I devoured How Music Works I was constantly thinking how Byrne's ideas apply to other forms of content. I think the ideas are valid when thinking about the written word, video content, and the Web. I used the ideas in How Music Works to formulate ideas about content in general.
David Byrne's How Music Works is amazing. Read it. And as you do if you're not in the music business, feel free to substitute "content" for "music" and see where the ideas lead you.
Clearly at age 60 David Byrne has had a lot of experience in the world of music and has had a lot of time to think about it and he has graciously decided to share his thoughts here.
The book starts out as a sort of anthropological look at music in general, then continues as he explains how the actual space in which the music is created (a small tavern, a concert hall, or a forest, for example) influences what type of music is produced. Or how technology changes and influences music.
There is quite a bit of musical autobiography here as he discusses his work with Talking Heads, and subsequent projects. Personally the first five Talking Heads albums (especially #1 and #2) were and are incredibly important and influential in my own personal history, and even in my development from a youth to an adult; but after the fifth album I moved in a different direction musically than Byrne did and honestly, unless I heard it on the radio, I have never even listened to his subsequent works - so it was interesting read about them here.
As the book progresses Byrne explains much about the technical processes involved in recording music and the business side of music - that is to say different ways in which the music is marketed and sold. It's all fascinating, the writing is just right - I never actually thought "Oh, get over yourself!" even during the autobiographical sections, (this demonstrates the perfection of his writing style), the illustrations were interesting, and physically the hard cover McSweeney's edition is in itself a work of art.
This is interesting - I recommended this book to my Dad, who is 76 years old. He knows who David Byrne and Talking Heads are and he never really liked them at all (but I know he got to hear a lot of their music, probably against his will, as I lived in his house during my five year infatuation with Talking Heads) but he loved the book stating he thought Byrne was a genius!
Actually I will just go ahead and quote his email review - I don't think he will mind:
"I've mentioned this book, recommended to me by Michael, to each of you whom I've seen in the past week or so. I found "How Music Works" by David Byrne to be fascinating and it's opened up to me new ways of looking at music in the world. I'll leave it to the Amazon description which I've included to give you a general overview. I have never been a 'Talking Heads' fan but that doesn't matter while reading this thing. This guy is a genius and his observations are very stimulating, thought provoking. He knows whereof he speaks and, though I didn't grasp some topics. I am really glad I tried."