Byrne Book Takes Stand for Music Without Borders

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David Byrne, Talking Heads co-founder, author of 'How Music Works'
David Byrne: “Good musicians of any given style are no better or worse than good musicians of another.”
From ‘How Music Works,’ by the Talking Heads co-founder.
By Marvin J. Ward

How Music Works, by David Byrne. Paperback edition, updated and revised. Published by McSweeney’s with accompanying example-filled website.

'How Music Works' (McSweeney's)BOOK REVIEW — 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 repertoire that is standard fare in today’s classical music 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 and 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. He writes, “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.”

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), and he 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 in dance, film, and theater and written several other books, his previous one being Bicycle Diaries in 2009 about traveling on two wheels in cities all over the world.

Talking Heads at Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, 1978 (Wikipedia)
Talking Heads at Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto, 1978 (Wikipedia)

How Music Works is divided into ten chapters, 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 various 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-plus years of performing. [Two of Talking Heads’ iconic videos are embedded below.]

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. While classical composers generally begin with a text by someone else when writing a song, Byrne often begins with the music and writes a text that fits it. He also discusses the fallacy that a song is the direct fruit of a composer’s personal experience. How many biographers of classical composers and program-note writers for concerts fall into this trap or write from this perspective?

The chapter “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 issues 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 devoted primarily to that broad topic. Byrne, citing sources, argues that the increased use of vibrato by string instruments in classical performances owes its origin to the fact that they sounded better that way in early recordings, and that once audiences became accustomed to hearing recordings, they demanded the same sound from live performers. He also discusses the social aspect of live performances, acknowledging that there is “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.”

Byrne bemoans the disappearance of, and lack of respect for, amateur musicians who, in his view, “have always been equal as far as playing and writing go,” and the reduction or elimination of music education in the schools.

The book is very eclectic. Byrne is always pursuing knowledge of music new to his ears. He covers world music, ethno-musicology, sound theory, acoustical science, nearly everything imaginable associated with or related to music from prehistoric 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 [which hypothesizes the spacing of the planets in the Solar System] 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, B-flat. You might say that the universe plays the blues.”

While much of what Byrne 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.”

This is a pretty good description of tempo rubato within the beat, even if that term is never used.

How Music Works is not a scholarly book, but Byrne has done a great deal of reading, including Oliver Sacks’  Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and Alex Ross’ Listen to This!, and he has looked into music-related neurobiological research by a team led by Dale Purves at Duke University.  Footnotes and bibliography allow the reader to explore the subject further.

Byrne’s writing style is colloquial, conversational even, sometimes a bit gritty. 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. While great depth cannot be achieved in such a rambling and wide-ranging overview, he does provide a lot of information and food for thought. He writes extensively about the elitist aspect of classical music in today’s performance world and recorded marketplace and the need for classical music to adapt and diversify if it is to survive, which he clearly believes it deserves to do.

Ultimately, Byrne 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.”

Marvin J. Ward was a founder of Classical Voice of New England. Since April 2011, he is a Five Colleges Associate with Five Colleges, Inc., based at Smith College in Northampton, MA. His research and writing focus on music, currently French, and performances on historic pianos at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.