Going Over The Books 002

Thursday, 21 March 2013

How Music Works is a strange hybrid of a book. It is part musical autobiography, part advice manual for musicians and part philosophical treatise. The amazing thing is that Byrne pulls it off and unites all those elements into a coherent, interesting and entertaining whole.

Byrne's overarching thesis is that context influences music. Not just how we hear it, but in fact how it is created; that the type of music one plays is inevitably influenced by the context in which it is created. Usually this is to fit with the context, although sometimes it is created in direct opposition to the surrounding environment. I found this stand personally interesting, as it meshes completely with my own argument that context always influences how we hear music. This has been an ongoing, if not always overt, theme in my Aging Punk columns as well.

Byrne makes the center of his argument clear in his opening discussion of performance spaces. He points out how drums – the first instruments – work best in large, open spaces like the outdoors of our tribal days. Gregorian chants, with their long intoned notes, are ideal for the echo-saturated interior of a Gothic cathedral. The sound of a modern pop band would be both lost and unpleasantly distorted by such a room, but works fine in a small nightclub.

Byrne goes on to discuss technology, social scenes (including a great analysis of how CBGB's created a vibrant music scene in the Seventies), marketing and education, and how they each influence the music a particular culture produces. Throughout, he uses his own experiences as a musician to illustrate his points. This enables him to make clear what he is talking about and back it up with actual examples. It will also please his fanbase with all sorts of lore from Talking Heads and his solo career. He gives background on every album he has released, with a heavy focus on songwriting and recording techniques. I was especially interested in his discussion of Remain in Light, which not only represented a shift in musical style, from minimalist pop to multi-textured funk, but also a change in his songwriting. Before, he would bring fully formed songs into the studio for the band to learn, but here the band composed as a group, building songs out of loose jams.

Any musician of any stripe is going to find a lot of fascinating information in this book. Perhaps the most important section for them is where he breaks down the economics of the various marketing models currently available, from selling everything (including your soul) to a record company, to doing it all yourself, and everything in between. He even provides revealing graphs of where every dollar comes from, and where every one goes (often surprisingly few into the musicians' pockets). This is invaluable information.

Byrne closes How Music Works with a plea for inclusiveness in the musical culture. He argues that the true value of music lies not just in listening to it, but in playing it. That regardless of your level of talent, there is something to be gained from giving it a go. That music should be an active occupation, not a passive one.

If you're a Talking Heads fan, or a working musician, or are interested in music theory, you need this book. Apparently a lot of people agreed – because the first printing sold out in a month. But it is available again now, so grab it while you can.



How Music Works
is available now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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