David Byrne – How Music Works

| Words: Karl McDonald

Have you ever wondered about music? Like, in general? Well, David Byrne’s got the answers. The brief is apparently massive, given the title, but it is as it seems: one of Western music’s most respected greybeards has taken it upon himself to explain the whole phenomenon.

Through a surprisingly deft mix of biographical reminiscence, academic consideration and anthropological music, Byrne walks us through subjects all the way from the idea of giving bands free beer even when they’re not actually playing to the fact that planet-distance ratios are strikingly similar to musical harmonics. He forwards the (seemingly obvious but nonetheless controversial) theory that music is not an expression of personal genius but a response to format constraints and generic expectations. And he has his accountant tell us exactly how much he made off several of his solo records.

How Music Works is dazzling compared to other rock-star autobiographies, certainly, but even compared to the ‘thinker’ books on music, it stands out. It’s comprehensive about the issues in music, but not prescriptive, and even though it’s (both physically and figuratively) heavy, it’s delivered with a sense of fun, like his music. In fact, it could be his best contribution to world culture since Remain In Light.