That last part is incredibly important about this book. The “by David Byrne” part. It is unabashedly a book that centers on his career in music. You can find out his conflict on dressing for performances, how he started out performing live in front of audiences in a bird with a violin, to the exact reasons that CBGB were so cool.

Although it also does try to tell a musical performer of the inherent conflicts and tensions apparent throughout performing live music, and it also calls the chapter about CBGB “how to build a music scene”, and tries to offer his anecdotes about its development as profound wisdom to be recorded for the ages.

how music works cover

It’s hard to say whether or not he succeeds,

But I can tell you one thing: there must be an acceptance of David Byrne giving everything in this book. Although he says in the first chapter that he’s “uninterested in the swollen egos that drive some artists,” David Byrne also admits that the ego “shapes music at least as much as the phenomena” we hear: and so the book admits it can’t present an unaltered view of how music works in the environment, because, heck, even for david byrne’s conception of music, “much of my understanding… has certainly been accrued over many years of performing and recording.”

It’s an oddly condescending tone to strike, professing to know about the general qualities of music, sound, and the manner in which humanity experiences sound, while also saying that your own experiences are of utmost importance. David Byrne ends his intro by defending the ego, saying that the book is an example in studying “the psychological make-up of musicians and composers”, with Byrne as the most eager test subject.

There are lots of cool stories in this book. Yes, you already know half of them if you’ve read Greg Milner’s superb Perfecting Sound Forever (which is heavily recommended from this reviewer), but they don’t quite have David Byrne’s comic timing that comes from the most transparent prose describing how sound makes other things vibrate, and make sound too. “It’s fun to sing,” he concludes a chapter, and it’s clear that this book is about David Byrne’s music, which just so happens to include almost everything.

I have to say, his notes on hip hop leave a little bit to be desired, mostly in how he acts to have a complete knowledge of what separates rap from poetry (“it isn’t just a switch, you know”, he says, without elaborating on the drastic differences between the too), and he talks about what could have been lost from analogue to digital switch, that mp3s leave ghost frequencies out that make you think you’re getting a complete song. He can’t decide if something’s lost, though. It’d be too much of him to say that music will react to whatever the musicians and the listeners do, and that the human ear will always settle for “good enough”.

I, for one, believe that the decreasing enrichening tones might be behind the live music surge of the eighties when people started palying all kinds of music for each other, instead of going through the industry to let their friends hear them play, but the self-recording of music gets surprisingly little mention from the studio funded artist in this book, which has certainly shaped music, too, to my ears.

All of these complaints may ahve been avoided if his name wasn’t slapped on the cover and used for a quarter of all the examples. I have to say, this would have been a great book without a condescending single authorship. I can only hope Byrne will allow the world to speak through him instead of to him, but, ah, maybe next time.

I really doubt he’ll ever make it there, but it’s still a treat to watch (or listen to) him try.

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