Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book review: How Music Works

Best described as a part biographical, part educational and part historical text, How Music Works is David Byrne's attempt to track the evolution of music as it has been affected by history, social norms and technology. Given the author, this is pieced together with a smattering of stories and references to his career with Talking Heads, his solo works and relationships with other artists including Brian Eno.

The book's rather large undertaking splits its subject into several key areas per chapter, covering different venues and the topic of reverberation in one chapter and evolving recording technology in another. Other areas include production methods, the relevance of recording studios past and present, collaborations and analogue vs digital. What starts off as a large topic is broken down into a somewhat free-flowing story of anecdotes, research and examples, making for easy and humour-filled reading. Byrne is happy to share his knowledge and experiences from his career and melds them nicely into the narrative. Despite the sense that Byrne routinely seems to demonstrate that he has "been there, done that" at every step of the way, his recollections rarely seem boorish and always have relevance to each point.

It might be easy for critics to accuse him of being overly nostalgic when looking back on how things developed and how they affected his band, however Byrne carries an appreciation of the future and that things move on; none more so than the music industry. It is in this area that Byrne certainly makes up for any shortcomings with his no-nonsense explanation of the music industry. Coming at the subject from the angle of an amateur musician, I really enjoyed the clear overview of the industry and the pros and cons that all the options present. In coming at the subject from a business perspective, the book really does give some great insights into the industry and adds that the traditional models are also being circumvented by modern distribution methods. From a personal point of view I'm not sure whether it has given me hope or not in terms of making music to make money, but it has certainly been demystified for me.

Also of note is the variety in his musical tastes, drawing on his extensive music library so that when referring to genres or artists to apply to his theories, these are not limited to the those that he is associated with during his career. In doing so, you are forced to consider different styles and the cultures that developed them, emphasising that the book is about how all music works, not just some. For me, how Music Works is not designed as the be all and end all of music history and industry handbook, but a reasoned approach to charting the evolution of music, its production and consumption and gives plenty of food for thought for any music aficionados or aspiring artists.