School of Rock

How Music Works BY David Byrne. McSweeney's. Hardcover, 352 pages. $32.

The cover of How Music Works

The title promises the definitive lowdown. Between these covers, it implies, you will find everything you’ll ever need to know about the dynamics of collaboration, the craft of stage performance and studio recording, the nitty-gritty of the music industry. But you’ll also learn about how music affects us emotionally and what, ultimately, it is for.

A tall order, you might think, but if anybody is qualified to take a stab, it’s David Byrne. He’s an insider with over forty years’ experience as a practitioner under his guitar strap; he’s also an art-school-educated intellectual capable of taking a detached, aerial view. Starting out in the ’60s with youthful experiments making musique concrète, he went through a singer-songwriter phase, progressed rapidly through New York punk to MTV stardom in Talking Heads, and moved on to a busy post-pop afterlife collaborating with everyone from avant-garde choreographers to Latin American big bands to British DJ-producers. Byrne cofounded his own record label, Luaka Bop, so he’s also witnessed up close the traumatic transformations that have recently transformed the industry. And through it all, he’s been a thinker about music as well as a creator and performer.

Just as its title mixes grand ambition and plainspoken practicality, How Music Works moves back and forth between the grounded and the lofty, integrating workaday wisdom drawn from Byrne’s varied career with musings about the social and spiritual functions of music. Overall, though, the emphasis is on the concrete and mundane, with illuminating, if somewhat affectless and geeky, explanations of the recording process, the mechanics of songwriting, and the technicalities of programmed rhythm. By both temperament and ethos, Byrne is impelled to strip away the romanticism and mythology that surround making music. Describing CBGB in the mid-’70s, he notes that he had no sense that he and Talking Heads were participating in something that would one day be legendary. Nonetheless, he astutely identifies the features of the club and the policies adopted by its owner that made it such a fertile locus for creativity. For instance, musicians who had played CBGB would always get admission to the club for free, and often get free drinks. As a result, CBGB became a nexus for mutual influence. The chapter is titled “How to Make a Scene,” and Byrne even provides floor plans of CBGB’s interior at different points in its existence to illustrate his argument. This echoes an earlier chapter, “Creation in Reverse,” which argues that music’s evolution over the centuries has partly been determined by the size and properties of the rooms where it was performed.

What emerges is a view of music that pays as much attention to the conditions in which it is made and heard as it does to the artist’s creative impulses. Byrne writes of his total lack of interest in “the swollen egos that drive some artists” and argues instead that music (or any art) is largely determined by “prior contextual restrictions.” Far more important than “an upwelling of passion or feeling,” it is “the space, the platform, and the software [that] ‘makes’ the art.” Byrne concedes “passion can still be present.” But throughout How Music Works, you don’t get much sense of emotion or real-life inspiration feeding into the songs.

Byrne’s book tells a version of the musical life that is deliberately less dramatic and heroic than first-person accounts by musicians usually are. That’s because How Music Works isn’t just a memoir. Byrne’s own description of it is “neither an autobiography nor a series of think pieces—but a little bit of both.” So there’s a slightly uneasy shifting between his very particular experiences and more general insights that can be extrapolated from them. There’s no dirt here. But nor is there the quirky anecdotal matter that added charm to the otherwise not-that-dissimilar tome A Year with Swollen Appendices, by Byrne’s sometime collaborator Brian Eno. How Music Works is literally characterless, in the sense that the people who pass through the narrative are present foremost as musical minds, and are barely sketched as complex human figures. Byrne is generous with praise and the sharing of credit, but you don’t get much feeling of the vital energies inside that quasi family, the rock band.

Overall, Byrne’s clear and calm approach serves him well. The account of the Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts era is rich in nuts-and-bolts detail, but also conveys the giddy excitement of making musical breakthroughs. Byrne’s discussion of lyric writing is fascinating: Often he’ll start with nonsense and random sounds and work at them until they form words. “If they feel right physiologically,” writes Byrne of the gibberish stage of this process, “if the tongue of the singer and the mirror neurons of the listener resonate with the delicious appropriateness of the words coming out, then that will inevitably trump literal sense.” Conversely, “if the sound is untrue, the listener can tell.”

This mode of semiautomatic writing touches on one of Byrne’s key themes: artistic intent and control as something to be eliminated. “The idea is to allow the chthonic material the freedom it needs to gurgle up. To distract the gatekeepers,” he writes. Byrne also emphasizes the idea that “restriction is the mother of invention” (a maxim of musician Holger Czukay’s). He argues that there are advantages to the long-distance collaborations increasingly common in the postbroadband era. What’s lost in terms of real-time, face-to-face interaction is offset by the fact that half the decisions have already been made by the time you receive the material. This reduction of options “turns out, as usual, to be a great blessing. Complete freedom is as much curse as boon.”

Taking this striking insight further, Byrne argues that a band itself can work as a kind of creative constraint. The principal songwriter in the group learns to adjust his or her writing to play to the strengths of the other members and to bypass their deficiencies. Again, “these restrictions can actually be liberating.” Bands formed haphazardly, through friendship as much as musical affinity, develop a “band-voice” that can be both distinctive and innovative, precisely because their creativity is channeled through a limited zone where their talents and their variable abilities mesh. After the breakup of a famous band, a solo artist can pick freely from a broad pool of highly skilled session musicians, and though “one might assume that having better players . . . means that a composer can be more adaptable, free, and wide-ranging,” Byrne writes that, actually, that’s rarely the case.

As How Music Works roams far and wide in its rumination, it meanders at some points, or lapses into a digest of Byrne’s broad reading on various subjects, such as the history of recording or music, mysticism, and the cosmos. In a book that covers so much ground, often with a zoomed-in level of detailed focus, it’s up to the reader to find the through lines that speak to his or her particular concerns. For me, that was a semi-buried thread about the conditions in which innovation occurs.

Byrne again emphasizes the role of chance and circumstance, and notes that something new can be created even when an aspiration for greatness falls short. For example, at one point, Talking Heads tried to play like James Brown, but “in the reinvention process we got much of it ‘wrong.’ . . . The version of funk we ended up with was skewed, herky-jerky, and somewhat robotic.” Such productive mutilation can be a conscious strategy, too: Talking Heads produced one of their greatest yet least characteristic songs, “The Overload,” by attempting to write a Joy Division song inspired by the reviews they’d read of that group, but having never actually heard their records.

The post-punk era was when I came of age as a listener, and for me Talking Heads have always been a paragon of rock modernism—the opposite of retro. So it was initially disconcerting to learn that the group used past musical reference points as a sort of lingua franca. Byrne’s explanation is revelatory: Because they lacked any musical training, “this mostly unspoken set of references was . . . probably what made communication and collaboration possible for us in the first place.” Moreover, because much of what defines great music—intangible qualities like sonic texture, groove, and feel—can’t be notated on a score, it made sense to use shorthand like “KC and the Sunshine Band” to describe the midsection of a song.

“As much as we wanted to sound like something entirely new . . . we could hear bits of the music that had preceded us all over our material,” Byrne admits. Luckily, the “skewed and mangled” way those influences were processed meant that few listeners could play the spot-the-source game. In his recent monograph on the group’s third album, Fear of Music, Jonathan Lethem recalls his teen-fan belief that Talking Heads’ discography “consisted of a sequence of advances into the radical absolute, each album a singularity devising itself in a vacuum.” That’s how I felt, too, as a seventeen-year-old listening to Fear of Music and Remain in Light. Even now, I still hear those records as ex nihilo, new things under the sun, though I am a forty-nine-year-old professional music critic for whom breaking records down into their constituent elements is sadly second nature. Perhaps the tragedy of the great musician or band is that because they’ve labored through the long gestation period of writing, rehearsing, live performance, and all the grueling reiterations of the recording process, they are the only listeners who never get to experience the rapture of hearing their finished masterpiece for the first time. They know all the stages of graft and craft; the conjuring tricks behind what sounds like a miracle to the virgin ear.

Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber & Faber, 2011) and Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–84 (Penguin, 2006).