How Music Works

By David Byrne

McSweeney's. 352 pp. $32. nolead ends

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Reviewed by Elivi Varga


You may ask yourself: Where and how do we listen to music? On the car radio, your iPod at the gym, an old turntable at home? Why do we listen to music? To relax or get motivated, to be reminded of someone, to forget about something? And you may ask yourself: How did we get here, to the land of MP3 downloads instead of, say, chunky 8-tracks?

Former Talking Heads front man David Byrne asks such questions in a series of essays in How Music Works, and he shows that even though technologies and tastes have changed over the last century or so, we're not necessarily worse off.

The 10 chapters, which Byrne suggests may be read in any order, range in subject from an autobiographical sketch to a virtual how-to manual for anyone wishing to "make it" in the music world, to essays on the role of technology in music. At times the book reads like a textbook, and I can imagine using How Music Works in a music appreciation class. And if you like Talking Heads, you'll finally learn how exactly the big suit came about, how the band evolved in its live shows, and how each album from its discography spanning 11 years, from Talking Heads: 77 to Naked, was made.

Byrne is at his best with his sweeping views of music in our lives:

We'll always want music to be part of our social fabric. We gravitate to concerts and bars even if the sound sucks; we pass music from hand to hand (or via the Internet) as a form of social currency; we build temples where only 'our kind of people' can hear our kind of music (opera houses, punk clubs, symphony halls); and we want to know everything about our favorite bands - their love lives, their clothes, their political beliefs. Something about music urges us to engage with its larger context, beyond the piece of plastic it came on - it seems to be part of our genetic makeup that we can be so deeply moved by this art form.

At other times in How Music Works, Byrne's generalizations are too narrow. When comparing Western and non-Western instruments, for instance, he erroneously states that "no variations of pitch or bending of notes is possible" with Western instruments.

Byrne's otherwise well-researched chapters on analog and digital technology are the centerpiece of the book. One learns how we got from Bell Lab's telephone lines to the digitization of music. "We are seduced by convenience," Byrne states:

First, we wanted to make a telephone call without all the lines being busy (back when all we used were physical lines in the air or under the ocean); then, we wanted to listen to music we had heard in the Honky-tonk at home on the radio, and then on a disk. But that disk took up so much space, so new technology made it possible to listen to Beethoven's Ninth on one LP instead of eight heavy 78 rpm disks. Then we wanted our favorite singles on one small disk, thus the advent of the 31/2-minute pop song.

And then the world became a field of ones and zeros:

The digitization of every form of media enabled the Web to be what it is, much more than a way of transmitting text-based documents. This slicing of content allowed a wide variety of media to flow into that river, and in a way we owe all the pictures, sounds, songs, games, and movies that are part of our Internet experience to the phone company, information science, and psychoacoustics.

Psychoacoustics? Qu'est-ce que c'est?

It was 30 years ago in October that the first commercial CD album was released - Billy Joel's 52nd Street - and the new technology seemed revolutionary: "We were told that CDs would last forever and sound squeaky clean, but they really don't sound as good as LPs, and the jury is out regarding their durability." CDs have certainly improved sonically over the last 30 years, but if you have a decent turntable and LPs without too many scratches, there's nothing like the full-spectrum aura of vinyl. But times change, technology moves forward, and we crave more convenience. Now we want weeks' worth of music on our iTunes playlists, and we can buy a song to download for 99 cents.

Byrne, the optimist, says, "Having a variety of business choices is good for artists: It gives us more ways to make a living. And it's good for audiences, too, who will have the opportunity for more - and more interesting - music to listen to." He lays out those business choices with a dozen pie charts and graphs. He explains how the costs to make an album, like studio time, engineering, and mastering, have dwindled because of technology. Distribution and marketing solutions have changed, and musicians can make more money with performing and licensing.

Byrne gets into many other facets of music throughout How Music Works: Alan Lomax's field recordings of folk music; Leopold Stokowski's revolutionary method of recording his orchestras; Theodor Adorno's grumpiness about many things; and he even mentions our own Philadelphia Orchestra's financial issues. In his last chapter, "Harmonia Mundi," Byrne delves into ancient music, why we need music, and how our brains process music. How Music Works will appeal to many readers including Talking Heads fans, amateur and professional musicians, technology and history buffs - anyone who has no fear of music or how it affects our daily lives.

Elivi Varga is a professional flutist living in Philadelphia. Contact her at contact@elivi.com.