David Byrne on how music works (book review)

The Audiophiliac reviews former Talking Head David Byrne's entertaining new book, "How Music Works."

McSweeney's Books

I was a huge Talking Heads fan and saw the band many times at shows in New York. That was a long time ago. Byrne is still a vital creative force, recording new music, performing, and writing books. He's worked with various media including film, photography, opera, and non-fiction. He's still searching for new creative challenges, which is more than you can say about most aging rock musicians. Byrne's new book, "How Music Works" reads more like an autobiography than a how-to make it in the music business tome.

Byrne is hyper-aware of how technology shapes music, and how tech's continuing evolution changes the way music is made and how we listen to it. He focuses on the differences between performing and recording music, and he believes the connection between today's heavily processed recorded music and live performance is almost non-existent. They are separate skills, and when you hear an unedited audio-only recording of a fantastic live concert you attended it's usually pretty disappointing. The show may have been great when you were there, but out of context the music may not hold your interest. There was a lot to see and experience at a live show that's missing from the recording. Studio recording is all about perfecting the music; live music at its best is about the musicians' connection with their audience. Recordings can be more of a product of technology than the musicians' skills; onstage it's all about performance and talent.

Byrne recalls the Talking Heads' recording sessions, and how the sound balances and mixes altered the music. His perspective as to how his music was changed by the process makes for fascinating reading. Recorded music used to be made to be played at home, but is now increasingly designed to be heard over headphones and in noisy environments. That changes the way music is recorded and mixed. Everything is interrelated.

The music business gets a long chapter, and Byrne somehow makes the machinations of record deals, royalties, distribution, contracts, publishing, studio expenses, and licensing make sense, sort of. There's a lot to absorb, but he does at least as good a job of making sense of the business side of music as I've ever read.

"How Music Works" is a journey of sorts, with a knowledgeable guide chock-full of personal insights and charm.Don't miss it.

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