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Friday, October 05, 2018

Review: How Music Works

I bought the audio book version of How Music Works without knowing who David Byrne was, or even being a fan of the Talking Heads band. a testimony to what having a ton of good reviews coupled with a good sale would do.

I started listening to the first chapter and it blew me away. This was clearly a guy who'd thought hard and deeply about music, with a beautiful statement on how the music venue (ranging from the jungles ans savannah in Africa to the club venues like CBGB) affected the music that's produced. I was impressed and immediately looked up who David Byrne was and listened to a few songs by the Talking Heads.

Part of the book is strongly autobiographical, detailing how he was inspired by Japanese kabuki and other Asian performing traditions to stage his famous Stop Making Sense concert, where stage sets would get moved in during songs, starting from a bare empty stage to a full on band. I even watched the concert for myself, and even though many of the songs didn't move me, it was quite clear that every move had been thought through and rehearsed.

One shock I had was when listening to the Talking Heads David Byrne didn't sound anything like the audio  book's narrator. I shouldn't have been surprised, but maybe you would be too.

Many of David Byrne's sympathies are exactly where mine lie, so I'm afraid you're going to consider my review of this book biased. He rails, for instance, against the dominance of classical music in music education. He notes that the faults of music notation mean that nuances of non-classical music such as groove just don't make it into notation, and hence many classical musicians just cannot "rock". Not only can't they perform like a practiced musician of the genre, they literally cannot hear the difference. Despite that, children get educated classically because that's "harder." He points out that music education should be redirected towards self-expression and composition, rather than an over-emphasis of technical expertise and replaying older pieces. He thinks that rich people donating to operas, symphonies, or ballets as a balm for their guilty conscience is pathetic, and expresses sarcastic surprise that real criminals and mobsters didn't get into that act, since it's obviously been so successful for the billionaire CEOs who would donate to the opera house while laying off rank-and-file workers.

I could go on and on about the great stuff I learned in this book. But it's best if you just discover it for yourself. If I had any stereotypes in my head about "dumb rock musicians who can only write repetitive lyrics but can't hold complex thoughts", David Byrne wiped those caricatures clear off my brain by the second chapter and proceeded a complete re-education campaign. He even has a chapter on how to grow a musical ecosystem which sounds like it would be much more effective than the frequent prescriptions in business magazines about "how to grow the next Silicon Valley".

That's not to say that he doesn't have his flaws (in doing research for this review I learned that he broke up with the rest of his band during an interview with a newspaper, hardly the act of a non-self-centered rock star), but I feel like I learned even more from this book than from the well respected (though classically-oriented) Great Courses entry. That makes this book highly recommended and a no-regret purchase.

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