Book Review: How Music Works

How Music Works, by David Byrne

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Three Rivers Press.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Admittedly, this was not an easy book to read.  I did not necessarily expect to see a book of nearly 400 pages in length by the former front man of the Talking Heads to be easy, and this book certainly delivered.  The author himself claims this book to be a cross between a memoir of his own experiences as a musician over several decades as well as a discussion of music and art in the larger and more theoretical sense, and this book delivers on both levels.  In many ways, the two levels of this book’s discussion help to reinforce the other.  The author’s personal experience gives a certain expertise and credibility to his larger scale discussion of wider trends in music and its creation and marketing, while the author’s discussion of the bigger picture puts his own personal story, which is an interesting and worthwhile one, into a context.  As a writer and amateur musician, I am no stranger to the music business or being interested in it [1].  This book was a pleasure to read, and a very thought-provoking read, and for those who want a deep and personal discussion of the music business and how it works, this is a great place to go.

In terms of its material, this book is divided into eleven chapters.  The first chapter looks at creativity from the opposite point of view, showing and telling that context matters a great deal in what is created and what form it takes, contrary to popular opinion that it only depends on what is inside the creator.  After that the author spends a great deal of time talking about his own life in performance.  Two chapters follow about how technology shaped music both in the analog and digital era.  Byrne then turns his attention to the dilemma of choice and the way that curation and recommendation help people to find the art they really want out of the bewildering variety of options available.  After that the author talks about his own experiences in the recording studio and how that has changed over time.  A chapter about collaborations follows that shows the author to be someone who richly enjoys working with others and the joy that comes from sharing the creation of art with others.  At this point the book turns to more pragmatic directions, as the author then discusses the business and finances of the music industry and provides six models wherein artists can make a living depending on their risk tolerance and suite of skills.  After that the author discusses how one makes a scene out of the locations where music is performed, including some discussions on the need for low rent and a high degree of transparency.  The author then closes with a praise of amateurs and the creative capacity of those who do not profit from their love of music and a discussion of harmony around the world.  This book gives you way more than you bargain, and there is nothing wrong with that in the least.

Overall, this book shows a healthy combination of someone who is self-aware, to the point of frequently being considered too ironical to make a straightforward point, but also someone who is deeply observant of the world around him.  For all of the drama involved in tensions within the Talking Heads as well as the possibilities of bad blood between Byrne and the various labels he has worked with, this book manages to take the high road.  Byrne shows himself grateful for having been able to have a sustained and profitable career and make the sort of music he wants for an audience willing to pay him for it in terms of music sales as well as concert tickets.  He shows himself willing to let others respond to his comments, and this paperback edition features some expansion, including material from those who the author wrote about in the hardback version having their chance to answer the author back.  In general, this book is detailed, practical, and written with a great deal of graciousness.  All of these things make for an enjoyable read for anyone who has an interest in the music business or the career or context of David Byrne, whether with the Talking Heads or outside of that band.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Music History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: How Music Works

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