How Much Does a Talking Head Know About How Music?
Simon Marcus Gower
For me, listening to music has always been a magical, mysterious experience that I would rather not analyze.
The ability of a piece of music to transport me to a different time and place is a wondrous thing, but not one that I necessarily want explained to me. And so it was with some apprehension that I picked up the book “How Music Works” by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
The title alone gave off an air of absolutism and certainty that concerned me. It suggested that the author was going to reveal music’s secrets and mysteries. Was that what I really wanted? I suppose curiosity got the better of me and in the end I set aside my misgivings.
I won’t deny that Byrne’s name on the cover was part of the reason for my curiosity. Talking Heads consistently broke new ground as a key player in the development of alternative rock in the 1980s. Anyone who has seen the Jonathan Demme-directed movie “Stop Making Sense” will agree that Byrne and his group were on the cutting edge and were just stunning live. So perhaps if anyone has a right to philosophize on how music works it is Byrne.
Indeed, the book turned out to be quite philosophical — and autobiographical and anthropological. Byrne reviews his musical encounters and influences with reference to a studious array of sources, all the while examining the context from which the music emerged.
With an almost scientific eye for analysis, Byrne comes across less as a well-known pop star and more as a referential academic, but his meticulous approach does not detract from the book’s readability.
Thankfully, my love of the mysterious in music was not wholly shattered by the text. As much as Byrne sets out ideas about how music works, he also explores how it comes into being and how new music shapes the development of music around the world.
Byrne is consistently interesting and insightful as he details the many influences that shape the creation of music, including historical, social, geographical and political factors.
In a more autobiographical moment, Byrne writes that Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” allowed him to see that music could “not only sound different, but be socially different.”
He also shows how music is defined by the contexts and environments from which it emerges. For example, he points to medieval music and how it can sound dull and lacking in vigor to modern ears, when in fact its tempo and key are products of the huge cathedrals in which the music would have been performed. Reverberation levels in such buildings meant that more rhythmic music with a lot of key changes was unrealistic because of the extent of the echo.
Meanwhile, African musical development could afford to be far more rhythmical. African music was played outdoors, or in buildings that did not have hard stone surfaces that would bounce the sound, with many drums and percussion rhythms so uptempo music became the norm.
Available technologies also impact music development, Byrne shows.
He writes that when the phonograph was invented in the late 1870s, music changed significantly. Live performance was no longer the only vehicle for music and so “recording [uprooted] music from its place of origin.”
The continuing development of formats and gadgets via which we listen to music is also considered by Byrne — and not always favorably. Vinyl-based playback is apparently more therapeutic than music played back via a computer, in his view.
Byrne may come across as adverse to some technological development but overall this is a very positive, revealing and interesting book.
Does it reveal how music works? Well, yes and no, and that is fine with me.
How Music Works
By David Byrne
Published by Canongate