David Byrne's How Music Works

Former Talking Heads frontman and all-round happy mutant David Byrne has written several good books, but his latest, How Music Works, is unquestionably the best of the very good bunch, possibly the book he was born to write. I could made good case for calling this How Art Works or even How Everything Works.

Though there is plenty of autobiographical material How Music Works that will delight avid fans (like me) — inside dope on the creative, commercial and personal pressures that led to each of Byrne's projects — this isn't merely the story of how Byrne made it, or what he does to turn out such great and varied art. Rather, this is an insightful, thorough, and convincing account of the way that creativity, culture, biology and economics interact to prefigure, constrain and uplift art. It's a compelling story about the way that art comes out of technology, and as such, it's widely applicable beyond music.

Byrne lived through an important transition in the music industry: having gotten his start in the analog recording world, he skilfully managed a transition to an artist in the digital era (though not always a digital artist). As such, he has real gut-feel for the things that technology gives to artists and the things that technology takes away. He's like the kids who got their Apple ][+s in 1979, and keenly remember the time before computers were available to kids at all, the time when they were the exclusive domain of obsessive geeks, and the point at which they became widely exciting, and finally, ubiquitous — a breadth of experience that offers visceral perspective.

There were so many times in this book when I felt like Byrne's observations extended beyond music and dance and into other forms of digital creativity. For example, when Byrne recounted his first experiments with cellular automata exercise for dance choreography, from his collaboration with Noemie Lafrance:

1. Improvise moving to the music and come up with an eight-count phrase (in dance, a phrase is a short series of moves that can be repeated).

2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.

3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.

4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.

It was like watching evolution on fast-forward, or an emergent lifeform coming into being. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. At first the room was chaos, writhing bodies everywhere. Then one could see that folks had chosen their phrases, and almost immediately one could see a pocket of dancers who had all adopted the same phrase. The copying had already begun, albeit in just one area. This pocket of copying began to expand, to go viral, while yet another one now emerged on the other side of the room. One clump grew faster than the other, and within four minutes the whole room was filled with dancers moving in perfect unison. Unbelievable! It only took four minutes for this evolutionary process to kick in, and for the "strongest" (unfortunate word, maybe) to dominate.

I remembered the first time I programmed an evolutionary algorithm and watched its complexity emerging from simple rules, and the catch in my throat as I realized that I was watching something like life being built up from simple, inert rules.

The book is shot through with historical examples and arguments about the nature of music, from Plato up to contemporary neuroscience, and here, too, many of the discussions are microcosms for contemporary technical/philosophical debates. There's a passage about how music is felt and experienced that contains the phrase, "music isn't merely absorbed above the neck," which is spookily similar to the debates about replicating human consciousness in computers, and the idea that our identity doesn't reside exclusively above the brainstem.

The same is true of Byrne's account of how music has not "progressed" from a "primitive" state — rather, it adapted itself to different technological realities. Big cathedrals demand music that accommodates a lot of reverb; village campfire music has completely different needs. Reading this, I was excited by the parallels to discussions of whether we live in an era of technological "progress" or merely technological "change" — is there a pinnacle we're climbing, or simply a bunch of stuff followed by a bunch of other stuff? Our overwhelming narrative of progress feels like hubris to me, at least a lot of the time. Some things are "better" (more energy efficient, more space-efficient, faster, more effective), but there are plenty of things that are held up as "better" that, to me, are simply different. Often very good, but in no way a higher rung on some notional ladder toward perfection.

When Byrne's history comes to the rise of popular recorded music, he describes a familiar dilemma: recording artists were asked to produce music that could work when performed live and when listened to in the listener's private playback environment — not so different from the problems faced by games developers today who struggle to make games that will work on a wide variety of screens. In a later section, he describes the solution that was arrived at in the 1970s, a solution that reminds me a lot of the current world of content management systems like WordPress and Blogger, which attempt to separate "meaning" from "form" for text, storing them separately and combining them with little code-libraries called "decorators":

[Deconstruct and isolate] sums up the philosophy of a lot of music recording back in the late seventies. The goal was to get as pristine a sound as possible… Studios were often padded with sound-absorbent materials so that there was almost no reverberation. The sonic character of the space was sucked out, because it wasn't considered to be part of the music. Without this ambiance, it was explained, the sound would be more malleable after the recording had been made. Dead, characterless sound was held up as the ideal, and often still is. In this philosophy, the naturally occurring echo and reverb that normally added a little warmth to performances would be removed and then added back in when the recording was being mixed…

Recording a performance with a band and singer all playing together at the same time in the same room was by this time becoming a rarity. An incredible array of options opened up as a result, but some organic interplay between the musicians disappeared, and the sound of music changed. Some musicians who played well in live situations couldn't adapt to the fashion for each player to be isolated. They couldn't hear their bandmates and, as a result, often didn't play very well.

Changing the technology used in art changes the art, for good and ill. Blog-writing has a lot going for it — spontaneity, velocity, vernacular informality, but often lacks the reflective distance that longer-form works bring. Byrne has similar observations about music and software:

What you hear [in contemporary music] is the shift in music structure that computer-aided composition has encouraged. Though software is promoted as being an unbiased toold that helps us do anything we want, all software has inherent biases that make working one way easier than another. With the Microsoft presentation software PowerPoint, for example, you have to simplify your presentations so much that the subtle nuances in the subject being discussed often get edited out. These nuances are not forbidden, they're not blocked, but including them tends to make for a less successful presentation. Likewise, that which is easy to bullet-point and simply visualize works better. That doesn't mean it actually is better; it means working is certain ways is simply easier than working in others…

An obvious example is quantizing. Since the mid-nineties, most popular music recorded on computers has had tempos and rhythms that have been quantized. That means that the tempo never varies, not even a little bit, the the rhythmic parts tend toward metronomic perfection. In the past, the tempo of recordings would always vary slightly, imperceptibly speeding up or maybe slowing down a little, or a drum fill might hesitate in order to signal the beginning of a new section. You'd feel a slight push and pull, a tug and then a release, as ensembles of whatever type responded to one another and lurched, ever so slightly, ahead of and behind an imaginary metronomic beat. No more. Now almost all pop recordings are played to a strict tempo, which makes these compositions fit more easily into the confines of editing and recording software. An eight-bar section recorded on a "grid" of this type is exactly twice as long as a four-bar section, and every eight-bar section is always exactly the same length. This makes for a nice visual array on the computer screen, and facilitates easy editing, arranging, and repairing as well. Music has come to accommodate software, and I have to admit a lot has been gained as a result.

Byrne is well aware of the parallels between music technology and other kinds of technology. No history of the recording business would be complete without a note about the format wars fought between Edison and his competitors like RCA, who made incompatible, anti-competitive playback formats. Byrne explicitly links this to modern format-wars, citing MS Office, Kindles, iPads and Pro Tools. (His final word on the format wars rings true for other media as well: "Throughout the history of recorded music, we have tended to value convenience over quality every time. Edison cylinders didn't really sound as good as live performers, but you could carry them around and play them whenever you wanted.")

Likewise, debates over technological change (pooh-poohing the "triviality" of social media or the ephemeral character of blogs) are played out in Byrne's history of music panics, which start in ancient Greece, and play out in situations like the disco wars, which prefigured the modern fight over sampling:

The most threatening thing to rockers in the era of disco was that the music was gay, black and "manufactured" on machines, made out of bits of other peoples' recordings.

Like mixtapes. I'd argue that other than race and sex, [the fact that disco was "manufactured" on machines, made out of bits of other peoples' recordings] was the most threatening aspect. To rock purists, this new music messed with the idea of authorship. If music was now accepted as a kind of property, then this hodgepodge version that disregarded ownership and seemed to belong to and originate with so many people (and machines) called into question a whole social and economic framework.

But as Byrne reminds us, new technology can liberate new art forms. Digital formats and distribution have given us music that is only a few bars long, and compositions that are intended to play for 1,000 years. The MP3 shows us that 3.5 minutes isn't an "ideal" length for a song (merely the ideal length for a song that's meant to be sold on a 45RPM single), just as YouTube showed us that there are plenty of video stories that want to be two minutes long, rather than shoehorned into 22 minute sitcoms, 48 minute dramas, or 90 minute feature films.

And Byrne's own journey has led him to be skeptical of the all-rights-reserved model, from rules over photography and video in his shows:

The thing we were supposed to be fighting against was actually something we should be encouraging. They were getting the word out, and it wasn't costing me anything. I began to announce at the beginning of the shows that photography was welcome, but I suggested to please only post shots and videos where we look good.

To a very good account of the power relationships reflected in ascribing authorship (and ownership, and copyright) to melody, but not to rhythms and grooves and textures, though these are just as important to the music's aesthetic effect.

Byrne doesn't focus exclusively on recording, distribution and playback technology. He is also a keen theorist of the musical implications of architecture, and presents a case-study of the legendary CBGB's and its layout, showing how these led to its center in the 1970s New York music scene that gave us the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and many other varied acts. Here, Byrne channels Jane Jacobs in a section that is nothing short of brilliant in its analysis of how small changes (sometimes on the scale of inches) make all the difference to the kind of art that takes place in a building.

There's a long section on the mechanics of the recording business as it stands today, with some speculation about where its headed, and included in this is a fabulous and weird section on some of Byrne's own creative process. Here he describes how he collaborated with Brian Eno on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today:

The unwritten rule in remote collaborations is, for me, "Leave the other person's stuff alone as much as you possibly can." You work with what you're given, and don't try to imagine it as something other than what it is. Accepting that half the creative decision-making has already been done has the effect of bypassing a lot of endless branching — not to mention waffling and worrying.

And here's a mind-bending look into his lyrics-writing method:

…I begin by improvising a melody over the music. I do this by singing nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion, given that I'm not saying anything. Once I have a wordless melody and a vocal arrangement my my collaborators (if there are any) and I like, I'll begin to transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words.

I'll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants on the recording, and I'll try to understand what that guy (me), emoting so forcefully by inscrutably, is actually saying. It's like a forensic exercise. I'll follow the sound of the nonsense syllables as closely as possible. If a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I'll transcribe that, and in selecting the actual words, I'll try to try to choose one that ends in that syllable, or as close to it as I can get. So the transcription process often ends up with a page of real words, still fairly random, that sounds just like the gibberish.

I do that because the difference between an ooh and an aah, and a "b" and a "th" sound is, I assume, integral to the emotion that the story wants to express. I want to stay true to that unconscious, inarticulate intention. Admittedly, that content has no narrative, or might make no literal sense yet, but it's in there — I can hear it. I can feel it. My job at this stage is to find words that acknowledge and adhere to the sonic and emotional qualities rather than to ignore and possibly destroy them.

Part of what makes words work in a song is how they sound to the ear and feel on the tongue. If they feel right physiologically, if the tongue of the singer and the mirror neurons of the listener resonate with the delicious appropriateness of the words coming out, then that will inevitably trump literal sense, although literal sense doesn't hurt.

Naturally, this leads into a great discussion of the neuroscience of music itself — why our brains like certain sounds and rhythms.

How Music Works gave me insight into parts of my life as diverse as my email style to how I write fiction to how I parent my daughter (it was a relief to read Byrne's discussion of how parenting changed him as an artist). I've been a David Byrne fan since I was 13 and I got a copy of Stop Making Sense. He's never disappointed me, but with How Music Works, Byrne has blown through my expectations, producing a book that I'll be thinking of and referring to for years to come.

Byrne's touring the book now, and as his tour intersects with my own book tours, I'll be interviewing him live on stage in Toronto on September 19th, at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors.

How Music Works