Staff Review by Chris Saliba
David Byrne distils a lifetime of experience and reading on the subject of music into a far reaching meditation. The result is a book that is both aesthetically satisfying and intellectually stimulating. A must read for all music fans!
How Music Works defies simple categorisation. This may make it sound complex and unwieldy, but it’s anything but. David Byrne’s meditative and engaging voice unifies its numerous themes into a very solid and coherent whole. The book is perhaps best described as a mix of autobiography, philosophy, history, science and even self-help.
Fans will be well aware of David Byrne’s time as singer / songwriter with the band Talking Heads, plus his catalogue of solo albums and collaborations. While How Music Works almost reads as academic in some parts, it is Byrne’s long experience as a practitioner that makes the book also quite inspirational. A long chapter titled “Amateurs!” urges a return to a time when everyone made music themselves. As technology has advanced, making music more ubiquitous in our lives, our hands-on ability to make music has diminished. There are more listeners than players.
Byrne discusses technology and its impact a lot. While not declaring for or against new technologies, he highlights the pros and cons that new technologies bring. For example, computers ensure music is easier to make, but tends to homogenize it. Digital music makes it more accessible, but lacks quality and fidelity when compared with analogue recordings.
Surprisingly, the chapter ‘Business and Finances’ has some really interesting insights. Byrne candidly lays out the balance sheets for a couple of his albums, breaking down the costs for recording, advertising, distribution, paying musicians etc. You’d be amazed at how little money is made on some of these recordings.
The genius of this book is that, even reading about the miserly remuneration for musicians and artists, it still makes the prospect of creating music exciting. Byrne’s endless fascination with the creative process, his happy immersion in all things musical, makes it clear that art making is very much its own reward. How Music Works is both a practical and an inspiring book.
David Byrne’s How Music Works can be read on a number of levels. It can assist as a guide for those wanting to embark on a career as a musician, or as an appreciation for those who enjoy listening to music. It addresses many serious intellectual questions, but in an accessible way by someone who wants to include the reader in his musical journey. The book penetrates deeply into music’s mystery, showing us that there is so much more than what appears on the surface, and guiding us to our place in that sonic universe.
How Music Works, by David Byrne. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9780857862501 RRP: $39.99