David Byrne: How Music Works

David Byrne of Talking Heads fame offers up 300+ pages on music including the meaning of listening to music, the music business, the history of music-making, recording, why CBGBs was a special place to make music in (partly because people didn't always have to listen to the music being made), how the place influences the music made in it, how business can influence musical decisions, and why music is man's cosmic connection to all things. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Music.

If you are a fan of David Byrne and/or the Talking Heads, you'll enjoy How Music Works which feels like a massive autodidactic brain dump from someone who obviously thinks about what it is he does. And if you think about music and wonder why it is we spend so much time fussing over its reproduction and enjoyment, you may also enjoy How Music Works. Even though I feel it could have benefited from further editing, I enjoyed it too.

Bell Labs eventually became Lucent. I visited their labs in the mid-nineties and they showed me a processor that could squeeze what sounded to the ear to be CD-quality music into a minuscule bandwidth. I believe encoding music as MP3 had already been invented n Germany by that time, so this extremely efficient compressing/encoding trick was not a complete surprise. And it was certainly no surprise that squeezing more sound information into smaller spaces continued to be a priority for a subsidy of a phone company. But like many people, I worried that the quality of music might somehow get sacrificed in this "rezzing down" process.

I was right. Those early, low-bandwidth digital files sounded slightly off, as if something ineffable was missing. It was hard to put your finger on why they sounded wrong, but they did. All the frequencies seemed to be there, but something seemed to have been sucked out in the process. Zombie music. MP3s have improved quite a bit since then, and now I listen to most of the music I own in that format.

Zombie music. I like that. But Huh!?! A book about how music works and the author is content listening to MP3s? In 2012? What would Neil Young say? Speaking of errors, I'll also note that the Vitruvian Man was drawn by Leonardo Da Vinci and not Michaelangelo as Byrne incorrectly states. If we can get past these oversights (and oversounds?) and the classical music chip hanging out on Mr. Byrne's violin-less shoulder, there's a wealth of interesting anecdotes from the practical,
It's sad that just as it has gotten easier for anyone to make a record exactly in the way they envision, the traditional means of selling and distributing music are becoming less viable. Increasingly, recordings are the loss leaders for merchandise, live-performance tickets, and licensing opportunities.
To the theoretical,
Here, then, is the philosophical parting of the ways in a nutshell. Should a recording endeavor to render reality as faithfully as possible, with no additions, colorations, or interference? Or are the inherent sonic biases and innate qualities of a recording an art unto itself?
Mr. Bryne goes on to explain that the recording process itself often creates an unreal environment so that most of the time reality has to be adjusted, chopped and spliced from various disparate bits to accomodate the recording process. He also gets into the gory details of the business-side of music-making including a fairly thorough accounting of his recording Grown Backwards (he made $58,000).

I particularly enjoyed the chapter titled "Harmonia Mundi" wherein we're lead into even deeper territory:

Far from being merely entertainment, music, I would argue, is part of what makes us human.
Hear here! We're told that music-making dates back some 45,000 years to Neanderthals playing flutes based on the Diatonic Scale. So easy a caveman can do it (sorry). He also points out that music-making can and has rehabilitated otherwise violent people and transformed neighborhoods in places like Salvador, Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Music may very well be, as Albert Ayler pointed out, the healing force of the Universe.

How Music Works is a thoughtful if scattered thought-provoking tome and while I'm not so sure I now know how music works, I know a lot more about how parts of it work and I also know more about how David Byrne thinks which is a thoroughly rewarding trip. The book comes dressed up like a squishy bible, at least to my eyes, and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes to think about music. Byrne paints with both a broad and finely-detailed brush covering a lot of theoretical and practical ground and he does so in an easy conversational manner.

The e-book version, which I don't have and even if I did I would not have been able to read it this week since we have no power due to Sandy, apparently includes music samples of some of the references in the book so this may add to those chapters where Byrne discusses music that may be unfamiliar. I still enjoy reading a book especially by candle light whose size is determined by its content and one that doesn't eventually need to be plugged in.

I'll leave you with one last quote which is from How Music Works but comes from the pen of T.S. Eliot:

"You are the music, while the music lasts."

kenmac's picture

Does Byrne get into how they recorded/wrote their classic albums?

Glad you made it through Sandy...

Michael Lavorgna's picture

He gets into his creative process which is very interesting almost like he 'channels' some inner (outer?) force.

Still no power and they're now saying maybe another week. At least we got cell service back....

deckeda's picture

I think the need to create is different from the need to consume art. Sometimes they commingle and yes musicians are usually fans of other musicians' art but at their heart they strike me as independent endeavors.

And the result is musicians aren't always audiophiles and/or who don't listen for the same things/appreciate the same things "we" do and vice versa. There's another priority and a certain level of sound quality isn't necessarily it.

I haven't read Byrne's book but I recognize several themes within it from some TED talks he's given in recent years, particularly how entire genres or subgenres have been conceived merely by necessity of where they've been performed.

And Michael, maybe you'll have that Victrola ready for next time, eh? In the meantime I'm sending you a virtual Dale's through the Internet. Refrigerated, of course.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I'd think musicians would want to promote sound quality especially someone like Byrne who is so considered in his approach to recording and performing. 

Thanks for the virtual Dale's! Cheers!

hotsoup's picture

So much MP3 hate again. I thought we were about the enjoyment of music.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It's just that there's less to love with MP3s ;-)

Wavelength's picture


ATT/Bell Labs had the coolest early DSP's. They had a DSP16 which was a fixed point unit that I used on a couple of products. But the DSP32 was one of the first floating point DSP's and was really cool because it was fast and required little power. A company I did work for locally did vibrational analysis for NASA and they had 8 of these on a ISA board for PC's and ran this custom FFT program they had written.

The early lossy compression was done with the DSP32. They had a board that went into a PC and they could encode the music that way. I remember the development system had floppies with zip files showing the algorithm.

Fun Stuff...

Of course now we can do the same thing with like parts smaller than the capacitors required for the damn DSP32.

Later G!