Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Music Works by David Byrne

McSweeneys Books, 2012

In case you didn’t know, David Byrne is one of the founding members of the Talking Heads (1975-1991), perhaps one of the greatest musical groups of all time.  But even if you do not share this opinion with me, How Music Works remains a fascinating read - attempting to do as the title suggests - to explain music in terms of artistic creation, technical production, factoring in the relative contexts of the artist, listener and media by which the sound is transmitted.

Byrne describes the artistic processes and ideas behind his music, told through a musical history of the Talking Heads and his own solo career.  We get some insights into how he/they approached music and its production and subsequent performances.  The intent here is to be less of a biography and more of a journey through the creative process.  While this would be of interest to Talking Heads aficionados, it is also relevant to anyone interested in how music groups operate and become more than a sum of their parts.

To Byrne, the context of music is very important - live music compared to recorded, where it is listened to and so on.  He describes how music is shaped by its means of transmission and the intended medium the music is created for - songs written for the concert hall or night club sound different than songs written for the radio, vinyl record, or CD.  He provides an insider’s perspective on the technical aspects of analog and digital media, how music is recorded in the studio, and aspects of the music industry business.  In this latter section, the parts about how the industry has been changed by new technologies and business models are particularly interesting.  

Discussion questions

  1. How awesome are the Talking Heads?  Or, how familiar are you with David Byrne and his music,  and how important is this to the reading of the book?
  2. How does this book differ from other books written by famous musicians?
  3. How does context affect your hearing of a piece of music?
  4. Discuss the different ways you listen to music.
  5. Are there any times when music is an intrusion to you?
  6. What is the difference between a live performance and the same piece of music heard elsewhere?
  7. Listening to music on a portable device (or in a vehicle etc.) is likened to carrying "our own soundtrack wherever we go, and the world around us is overlaid with our music."  How does listening to music this way affect your experience of the world?
  8. How important are visuals to a music experience (album art, music video etc.)?
  9. Why do people create, listen to, and appreciate music?
  10. Have you ever created music yourself? 

1 comment:

  1. A friend recommend this to me. This is a must read for lovers of all types of music as well as musicians.