David Byrne on silence

Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne's new book, "How Music Works," is a combination personal artistic memoir and cultural/scientific exploration of music -- what it is, how it's made, and what it means. (Cory's review of the book is here.) Smithsonian has posted a fascinating excerpt from "How Music Works" that includes a riff on the beauty of silence (photo by Bart Nagel):

In 1969, Unesco passed a resolution outlining a human right that doesn’t get talked about much—the right to silence. I think they’re referring to what happens if a noisy factory gets built beside your house, or a shooting range, or if a disco opens downstairs. They don’t mean you can demand that a restaurant turn off the classic rock tunes it’s playing, or that you can muzzle the guy next to you on the train yelling into his cellphone. It’s a nice thought though—despite our innate dread of absolute silence, we should have the right to take an occasional aural break, to experience, however briefly, a moment or two of sonic fresh air. To have a meditative moment, a head-clearing space, is a nice idea for a human right.

John Cage wrote a book called, somewhat ironically, Silence. Ironic because he was increasingly becoming notorious for noise and chaos in his compositions. He once claimed that silence doesn’t exist for us. In a quest to experience it, he went into an anechoic chamber, a room isolated from all outside sounds, with walls designed to inhibit the reflection of sounds. A dead space, acoustically. After a few moments he heard a thumping and whooshing, and was informed those sounds were his own heartbeat and the sound of his blood rushing through his veins and arteries. They were louder than he might have expected, but okay. After a while, he heard another sound, a high whine, and was informed that this was his nervous system. He realized then that for human beings there was no such thing as true silence, and this anecdote became a way of explaining that he decided that rather than fighting to shut out the sounds of the world, to compartmentalize music as something outside of the noisy, uncontrollable world of sounds, he’d let them in: “Let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for manmade theories or expressions of human sentiments.” Conceptually at least, the entire world now became music.

"How Do Our Brains Process Music?" (Smithsonian)

How Music Works (Amazon)



  1. Something happened when Byrne met Eno. They both became too too serious for their own good. Stop making sense, already!

  2. I just have to note two things:

    –This is one of the best photos of Byrne that I’ve seen in a while.
    –I want his hair.  Seriously.

  3. Conceptually at least, Byrne manages to describe here the most obvious thing we’ve all been able to recognize without feeling the need to comment on it for our entire lives. All sans ‘genius’ credit. Nice to see DB arrive at Malcolm Gladwell status I guess.  
    ps.  his new bike racks in front of BAM are beyond useless…

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