How Music Works – Chapters 1-2

Source Text: How Music Works by David Byrne

Coming into How Music Works as a newly minted David Byrne enthusiast, I was already primed to be a receptive audience. As such, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of the text, but the value it offers to a less partial reader is so far debatable.

The Audible edition begins with a short introduction spoken by Byrne himself. While my first inclination was to wish Byrne had narrated the entire text, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that he handed the book off to a professional narrator for the rest of the chapters. It’s succinct, tightly performed, and still carries an echo of Byrne’s speech in the writing patterns.

At the start, Byrne explains this is less an autobiography than an extended thesis on music history. I come into the latter field as a layman, and as such I’m most likely guilty of taking him ‘at his word’ without much sense for rebuttal. Still, I do my best to read critically.

In the first chapter, Byrne’s central idea is that creative works are subconsciously conceived for the performance circumstances already available to the artist. Venues are not made to accommodate music, he posits. Music is made to accommodate venues. Backing this up, he dabbles in various anthropological examples, such as the fact that African drums sound better in flat, open spaces. A cathedral, on the other hand, amplifies the tones of choral voices, and so such music developed to fill the space.

The citations in all this are rather thin, and the takeaways seem more like Byrne’s (extended) musings than any sort of peer-reviewed scholarly conclusion. Still, Byrne takes care in everything he presents, and knows when to temper or couch his words when making any overbold claims.

In the second chapter, Byrne applies these concepts to 18th century music onward, and to his own life. Here, he makes some fairly bulletproof points. Classical music increased in dynamic range, he explains, after audience behavior grew more hushed. A quietly reverent crowd, after all, is more able than a boisterous one to hear the soft moments in a work. Wherever this is going, however, we soon lose track, as Byrne’s early ‘music anthropology’ approach gives way to an extended recount of his formative years. We learn of teenage Byrne performing in coffee houses, touring America as a vagrant busker before forming the Talking Heads at RISD.

This is all great reading for a Byrne fan, but it makes a poor addition to a general music treatise. In this way, Byrne’s book seems lost in dead space between two paradigms. It’s either a Byrne autobiography with a lot of theoretical rambling, or a music theory text with a lot of self-indulgent anecdotes. Personally, I’m enjoying both, but I can’t help imagining hapless Byrne sitting with his publicist. “No, David,” she explains. “People don’t want to hear about African drums. You need to put in some things about yourself. A little Talking Heads gossip.”

Byrne gets it. After all, even his most avant garde tours still wheel out ‘Once in a Lifetime’ and ‘Burning Down the House’ when the audience starts to get restless. He knows what he needs to do to keep his fanbase tuned in and buying.