How Music Works, by David Byrne

17th February, 2022

Having somehow let Talking Heads pass me by as a teenager, I’ve been discovering the joys of David Byrne recently. The Strong Songs podcast had a terrific analysis of the Stop Making Sense concert movie, which is astonishingly good on every level. The BBC’s Soul Music also covered Once In A Lifetime a year ago.

What better time to pull David Byrne’s How Music Works off my bookshelf, where it’s been lurking unread for nearly a decade? I didn’t regret the decision. I expected to like the book; in fact I loved it.

How Music Works is a wide-ranging look at every aspect of music from culture to collaboration to finances. What makes the book so compelling is a delightful mixture of three things. First, Byrne has had a long, varied musical career and there’s lots of biographical detail here. Second, Byrne is widely read and very interested in ideas. Third, he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious way. These three things make the book a winner.

To give a sense of the range, consider three chapters. One, “My Life In Performance”, skips through Byrne’s teenage experiments playing folk music at the local coffee house, through the early days of Talking Heads, the making of Stop Making Sense, up to his 2008 tour. Along the way he reflects on his influences (Peking Opera!), the finances of touring, his self-diagnosed “very mild (I think) form of Asperger’s syndrome”, and even the choice of clothes. It’s fast-moving, full of telling detail, mistakes made and lessons learned.

A second, “Technology Shapes Music: Digital” explores how digital tools have not just changed the business of music but the music itself. Byrne reflects on how the studio itself becomes a compositional tool, and on how software pushes musicians towards some decisions and away from others.

A third, “Business and Finances”, explains the business of music, the different business models for a record release, and compares and contrasts (with pie charts!) two moderately successful Byrne albums, one released through a record company, and one self-published. Lots of detail, lots of ideas, no filler.

And there’s much more – the importance of space, thoughts on how a vibrant music “scene” emerges, reflections on whether recorded music is the death of amateur performances… Recommended!

The paperback of The Data Detective came out on 1 February in the US and Canada. Title elsewhere: How To Make The World Add Up.

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