David Byrne: How Music Works, San Francisco: McSweeny’s, © 2012, ISBN 978-1-936365-53-1, Pp. 348. $32.00. Information here.

David Byrne may be surprised to discover a review of How Music Works in the pages of an online classical music journal, since he readily admits that he is not especially fond of the 19th century classical music repertoire that is the standard fare of today’s world, although he does like some late 20th-century and contemporary composers. Readers of this journal may be equally surprised to find here a review of a book by Byrne, a pop-rock singer-songwriter, co-founder of Talking Heads. But Byrne’s knowledge of and experience in music is much broader than the genre in which he is active, and he declares: “There is really no hierarchy in music – good musicians of any given style are no better or worse than good musicians of another. Players should be viewed as existing across a spectrum of styles and approaches, rather than being ranked” (p. 184). He has virtually no formal training in music, but rather attended art schools (the Rhode Island School of Design and the Maryland Institute College of Art for one year each) but did not complete a degree, and is also active as an artist and a sculptor. One of his most recent projects was a set of creative bike racks that were installed in 2008 in New York City for about a year. He has also worked creatively and collaboratively in dance, film, and theater and written several other books, his previous one being Bicycle Diaries in 2009 about his visits of cities all over the world using his bike.

How Music Works is divided into ten chapters of unequal length, each of them largely free-standing; indeed earlier versions of three (Nos. 1, 7, and 9) appeared previously elsewhere. The basis for everything is Byrne’s own experience and observations, working solo, in duet, trio, and larger groups, and collaborating with a broad range of musicians performing in other styles, but this is not an autobiography. Chapter 2, “My Life in Performance,” comes closest to that because it details his career chronologically. The rest is the fruit of his reading, research, and serious thinking, the wisdom he has acquired from his 30+ years of performing that he wants to share with others. The chapters do not offer a continuous development and progressive flow, but neither are they haphazardly ordered; there are often cross-references, explicit and implicit, among them, but there is little repetition. Throughout, Byrne extrapolates from his own experiences to other genres of music and alternatives to the paths he chose. He talks about how music gets created, including how he composes his own songs – he generally also writes the texts; some are strophic and others, through-composed, although he does not use this term – and it is easy to extrapolate and imagine how classical composers go about their creation, even if they generally begin with a text by someone else when writing a song, while Byrne often begins with the music and writes a text that fits it. He also discusses the autobiographical fallacy: listeners assuming that a song is the direct fruit of a personal experience (pp. 155-56). How many biographers of classical composers and program-note writers for concerts fall into this trap or write from this perspective?

Chapter 7, “Business and Finances,” offers a basic handbook for musicians and musician-composers to get their works recorded and marketed – how they can make money from their work. The subject of recorded music, its history, and the differences between a live performance and a recording of a piece, the latter never being an exact replica of the former, are scattered throughout the text with three chapters (3-5) devoted primarily to it. Byrne points out (citing his sources) that the increased use of vibrato with string instruments in classical performances owes its origin to the fact that earlier recordings made this stand out, and once audiences consisted primarily of people accustomed to hearing recordings of the works, there was a demand that the performances replicate them (pp. 85-88). He also discusses the social aspect of live performances: “There’s something special about the communal nature of an audience at a live performance, the shared experience with other bodies in a room going through the same thing at the same time, that isn’t analogous to music heard through headphones” (p. 72). Similarly, he bemoans the disappearance of and lack of respect for “amateur musicians” and music making – “Amateur musicians have always been equal as far as playing and writing go […]”, p. 176) – and the reduction/elimination of music education in the schools, other subjects that are mentioned throughout the book, with Chapter 9 devoted to it.

The work is very eclectic – he is always pursuing knowledge of music new to his ears – covering world music, ethno-musicology, sound theory, acoustical science, nearly everything imaginable associated with or related to music, from pre-historic times through the Greek philosophers to the Renaissance thinkers and early scientific investigators in the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Concerning the “music of the spheres,” he writes: “‘Bode’s Law gives a series of orbital ratios, which are mathematically identical to the common intervals in musical theory. They’re primarily in what we call the 7th chord: C, E, G, Bb‘. You might say that the universe plays the blues” (p. 311, quoting a source in the first part). While much of what he discusses in some chapters is not directly related to classical music, it is also not unrelated. For example:

“I realize now that [‘being tight’] doesn’t actually mean that everyone plays exactly to the beat; it means that everyone plays together. Sometimes a band that has played together a lot will evolve to where they play some parts ahead of the beat and some slightly behind, and singers do the same thing. A good singer will often use the ‘grid’ of the rhythm as something to play with – never landing exactly on a beat, but pushing and pulling around and against it in ways that we read, when it’s well done, as being emotional. It turns out that not being perfectly aligned with a grid is okay; in fact sometimes it feels better than a perfectly metric fixed-up version” (p. 44).

This is a pretty good description of tempo rubato within the beat, even if that term is never used, and classical music is the furthest thing from his mind when he’s writing!

This is not a scholarly work, but Byrne has done a great deal of reading, including Oliver Sachs’ Musicophilia and Alex Ross’ Listen to This!, and some serious research, including looking into studies by a team led by Dale Purves in neurobiological sciences at Duke University, and a basic apparatus of footnotes and bibliography that document this is found at the end of the work, allowing the reader to explore a given subject further.

His writing style is colloquial, conversational even, sometimes a bit gritty, occasionally using words that cannot be uttered on the air. His perspective is always reflective, self-examining, and thoughtful, his approach analytical, frank, and self-revelatory. He discusses how music performance and recording have evolved over time and how they are likely to evolve in the future, the effects of the former and the implications of the latter for composers and musicians. While great depth cannot be achieved in such a rambling and wide-ranging overview, it can and does provide a lot of information and food for thought. He writes frequently about the elitist aspect of classical music in today’s performance world and recorded marketplace and its need to adapt and diversify if it is to survive, which he clearly believes it deserves to do, even if it is not his genre.

I have never been to one of Byrne’s concerts or to my knowledge ever heard one of his songs on the radio, but I found his book extremely interesting and enjoyable. Ultimately, he writes from this perspective: “Far from being merely entertainment, music, I would argue, is a part of what makes us human. Its practical value is maybe a little harder to pin down, at least in our present way of thinking, than mathematics or medicine, but many would agree that a life without music, for a hearing person, is a life significantly diminished” (p. 301). I suspect that many other classical musicians and classical music lovers share this perspective, and, if they put aside any pre-conceived notions they might have associated with the musical realm in which Byrne performs, would also enjoy this book.