You May Ask Yourself: How Does Music Work?

In 1986, David Byrne made a movie called True Stories, a mockumentary of sorts about the fictional city of Virgil, Texas. With a nod to the ugliness of industrialized civilization predicated on a mass killing of the native people, animals and vegetation, his treatment of the town—look at this field, where they build houses; the shopping mall is where people socialize on the weekend—comes in its own brand of wry compassion, with the same degree of bite as A Prairie Home Companion.

And a new book by Byrne, How Music Works, is a tour of all things musical delivered in the same voice that took us through Virgil. As smart and impeccably researched as it is, it doesn’t lack for irony. For one, it comes packaged by McSweeney’s as a minimalist coffee table tome, designed by the staggering genius himself. And threaded through an otherwise disjointed collection of chapters on Talking Heads history, the music industry, recording technology, and the science of sound is a cheekiness bordering on disdain directed at the Roger Scruton school of classical music is virtuous music, and pop music is for the plebian masses.

He spends a good deal of time picking on Theodor Adorno, who saw the jukebox, and all mechanized distribution of popular music, as a gimmick for suckers. “He might be right,” says Byrne, “but he might also have been someone who never had a good time in a honky-tonk.” It’s hard to imagine Byrne in a honky-tonk unaccompanied by a “check this shit out, I’m in a honky-tonk!” kind of attitude. Or maybe not. His ambiguous sensibility is what makes the fun parts fun.

A student of design, some of the passages on the architecture of musical spaces make for the most interesting stuff. He has a few good jabs at the opera houses and even Carnegie Hall, whose acoustics aren’t conducive to rock ’n’ roll: “This acoustic barrier could be viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out.” He favors the populist scenes around the likes of CBGB’s and Le Poisson Rouge (“I go to at least one live performance a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. There are other people there. Often there is beer there, too.”)

In a lingering op-ed piece of a chapter, he knocks the moneyed set for “supporting the arts” by preserving antiquated opera houses and museums while scores of aspiring artists and musicians go hungry. His historical tracings of musical gentrification are of note; apparently, people would drink and socialize during operas and shout at the stage, requesting encores of their favorite arias. A similar transformation occurred with jazz, where the relaxed, funky vibe was taken over by tweedy highbrow geezers in Greenwich Village. Out with dancing, in with sitting quietly. “Separating the body from the head seemed to have been an intended consequence—for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it,” he notes.

All this is not to say that he doesn’t have any grievances with pop music. The shimmying going on in the discos of the ’70s wasn’t merely the effect of catchy tunes—“I suspect there was a drug connection as well; those high frequencies in particular sounded sparkly fresh if you were on amyl nitrate or cocaine.” And not every pop song comes off the pen of an Andre 3000 or an Aimee Mann. “In Beyoncé’s song ‘Irreplaceable’ she rhymes ‘minute’ with ‘minute,’ and I cringe every time I hear it,” he concedes.

Byrne notes in the forward that the book can be read in any order, and I may go so far as to say that certain passages can be skipped altogether, sans guilt. One chapter begins with this gem: “The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos.” While I think there’s nothing wrong with amassing collaborations, it gets pretty tedious to list them all; every member of an obscure Latin jam band that he may have played with gets name-checked. He gives an exhaustive account of how songs were written for all of his albums, and anyone who doesn’t know an A-flat from an A need not try to comprehend those passages. A chapter detailing the six major variants of a recording contract is enlightening by way of proving, with thorough charts and figures, that musicians make no money. But it reads like a textbook—and, in many ways, How Music Works kind of is a textbook, backed up with a thorough bibliography and peppered with annotated images. The handsome presentation may cause some hesitation, but it really is a text to read and pick through time and again.

And all this is what you’d expect, and hope for, from the foremost heady apologist of pop music. It’s a must-read for anyone who has ever felt moved by a catchy tune and wanted more. And for those who haven’t, I suppose it’s understandable—it’s hard to shimmy around a room with a stick up your ass.

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