How Music Works

I want to apologize to David Byrne, and to myself, for taking five months to read this book. DB deserves better than that. I owe more to myself. There you go.

I’m what you’d call a newfangled Talking Heads fan. I don’t know much about them, but I know I love the song “Psycho Killer” because my coworkers sang it to me one day, and it was so insane that I instantly downloaded it and played it on repeat. And then I became sort of obsessed with David Byrne, and one time I thought I saw him in Oakland. (I didn’t.) So when I saw that he wrote a book about music, I thought it might be the perfect chance to jump-start my fandom, and learn a few things in the process.

His book is like a “Music for Dummies” book, except not for dummies at all. In fact, I may even be the target audience. I’m a media nerd, and a music fan, and this book pokes its nosy nose into several very nerdy aspects of music, while still maintaining its cool factor, thereby taking its readers to another level of nerd-dom. The hardcover version is even padded, just in case a few dummies pick it up by accident.

Byrne is not the most thrilling writer, but that’s because he’s a musician and an oddball and a self-diagnosed Aspberger’s-esque person. He doesn’t claim to be the most eloquent or the most descriptive or the be-all, end-all source on everything, but by making that claim, he actually lends himself a lot more credit. He also chooses not to make himself the subject of the book, but rather inserts his own experiences very democratically into the context of each chapter. He’s quite possibly the only artist in the world who can write truthfully and objectively about himself. It’s quite enviable.

His book is elegant, though, in its own simple way, because he uses his own experiences to color the technical terms and copious research that he did, and his anecdotes about touring and labels and contracts and venues and mentors sort of puts the whole book into very relatable perspective. Which is another enviable feat, considering that most books about music written by musicians are just recounts of all the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and by the end of the book, you’re exhausted and completely alienated (if not still in awe). I particularly liked learning about the six different contract models and the differences between analog and digital recording — not every page pulled me in, but it wasn’t supposed to. It was supposed to replace whatever grandiose thoughts I had about the music industry with realistic ones, and it did just that.

I can’t recommend this book to everyone, because it plain won’t interest everyone. But musicians, music nerds, even technology and history buffs, all of you people (myself included) will feel enriched by it, and possibly a strange, distant kinship with David Byrne after reading it. Oh, that hair. Must be an over-60 David thing.

The usual quotes, here:

p. 110 // On mixtapes: “Other people’s music–ordered and collected in infinitely imaginative ways–became a new form of expression.”

p. 184 // “Simplicity is a kind of transparency in which subtle nuances can have outsize effects. When everything is visible and appears to be dumb, that’s when the details take on larger meanings.”

p. 273 // On more conservative cultures: “Pleasure needs a moral note to be acceptable.”

p. 296 // “Unlike religion, no one has ever gone to war over music.”