How Music Works

I’ve just finished reading this tome, in which David Byrne from Talking Heads effectively whizzes through several areas of music-related theory in an entry level sort of way, using numerous examples from his own career.


Before I delve deeper I’ll answer a question I’ve been asked about it… is it ‘How Music Works by David Byrne’ or is it more ‘How Music by David Byrne Works’? Well there are times when it’s more the latter. The chapter on performance leans particularly heavily on a largely anecdotal account of how his performances have evolved over time – but then  what else does he have to draw on. A familiarity with Talking Heads and Byrne’s solo output would certainly help, and add a level of enjoyment for fans, but I’d still say this is an interesting read for anyone. There, that’s as close as I’m getting to ‘reviewing’ the book.

I say it’s about ‘music-related’ theory, it’s very much not a book about chords, scales, modes, harmonics or owt like that. Byrne’s central argument is that music arrives out of a specific context – be that social, technological, cultural, financial, or political – and that the old fashioned view of a composer who suddenly gets a gleam in his eye and furiously starts scribbling a score as an act of pure inspiration is a false one.

As an example, he discusses the impact of early recording technology on jazz. The crude ‘reverse-gramophone’/single microphone approach to recording a group would dictate choices about what instruments were used – banjos were used instead of acoustic guitars because they were louder, tubas came through better on the recording than a double bass, etc. Other groups of musicians in geographically separate locations would then hear these recordings and assume that a band with a tuba for a bass was how that music was ‘supposed’ to sound, and would promptly form groups with banjos and tubas.

He also looks at music’s social context. There’s a particularly opinionated section on how nouveau riche people have a habit of casting around for something to spend their money on, and ending up building an opera house (or similar temple to ‘high’ art) at huge subsidy. Why do this – he asks – and not fund subsidised pop concert halls ‘for the people’? In answering he links it to ideas about how the perceived superiority of classical and operatic forms of music are assumed (by the elite) to be good for the ‘soul’ of the common man (hi!) – John Maynard Keynes being a person who held such views – or in less abstract terms for the educational achievements of. In fact there’s no evidence that any one kind of music is better for the developing brains of children, though there’s clear evidence that learning some kind of instrument, and playing some kind of music is very valuable indeed – it doesn’t really matter what it is.

He also goes through how business models affect what music gets made, how radio broadcasting or night club PA systems affect how music sounds, how the amount of music that would fit onto a side of vinyl began to affect the length of compositions etc. All things which are obvious when you think about them – and most of these ideas weren’t new to me, and won’t be to many of you – but which all linked together effectively by Byrne, and are worth thinking about again.

How does context affect what music is made, Deadmau5?

Ultimately the central message is hugely positive. Byrne views music as a social phenomenon to its core, empowering, unifying and a way of communicating things words can’t. I think he’s right.

(Here’s where I stop talking about the book and start talking about me)

I don’t, if I’m honest, generally enjoy going to gigs. Even when I really like a band there’s so much about the live music experience which irritates me. The other people there, the poor sound, not knowing where to look, having to stand up, having to pay too much for beer, watching support bands, the set going on too long etc. Before I started university I’d probably been to about ten gigs ever and just a single music festival (Werchter 99 in Belgium if you were wondering). At university the gigs were largely local bands, and I would go mostly for the social side. There was probably one band in Aberystwyth that I genuinely wanted to hear for musical reasons.

Me trying to ‘play live’

The years 2006-08 were probably my peak gig watching years when I was touring a lot myself and was integrating myself into a new city by meeting friends who also played/went to gigs a lot. So I probably enjoyed those shows more because I had some sort of personal investment in the band doing well, and in them having a good time. More recently I don’t go to shows as much, and my own gigging has slowed down for a number of reasons.

But I buy more records than I ever have (partly just because I can afford to) and my love for music is as all-consuming now as it’s ever been.

Still I find my relationship with it is mostly based on its recorded form. I view a gig as an opportunity to basically evaluate a band and see if I want to listen to them at home. You generally ‘can’t hear the words’ at loud gigs, which is fine – but it means there’s nothing to connect with there. I tend to go to gigs in tiny venues that don’t lend themselves to music which depends on a very precise balance of sounds. Sound-based artists I love (like say Fennesz) don’t play in Cardiff – or anywhere near Cardiff – so I don’t know if I’d enjoy a gig like that or not.

Christian Fennesz playing live

There are bands I’ll go and see where I know the performance will be distinct from the recordings. A Hawk And A Hacksaw spring to mind. I’ll always go and watch them (because they actually bother to play Cardiff!), but I rarely buy their new album. Battles are great live and on record – but I think I appreciate them live so much because they’re such a hybrid of real instrument playing/computer and it sounds like it shouldn’t be possible to reproduce it live, but it is.

For the most part then I’m completely out of step with how the music ‘industry’ is perceived to be going. Records will ultimately, so the thinking goes, become adverts for gigs. They’ll be given free or sold at a loss in order to promote a ‘brand’ (formerly ‘artist’) which makes money from the concert and in other ways – as Byrne says in the book, this may include selling perfume, or lines of clothing. Whereas in the past concerts were viewed as promo for people to buy records, and tours would often lose money.

I’m still here happily buying albums, and deeply engrossed by the album as an authorial medium in itself. Am I saying music has to work in the context of a ten song 45 minute ‘work’? Absolutely not. A single song has just as much value. Only being able to write one or two great songs doesn’t mean you’re a crap band, most bands can’t even write one. But I grew up with albums, and I like the coherence, the ‘whole package’ that they offer.

In my own music I tend to think ‘I’m writing a new album!’. Although this only started with ‘European Monsoon’. Before that I would just think about new songs, and would clump them together in a vaguely pleasing order once I had enough to fill a disc. So Byrne’s right, considerations about format do affect how music is written.

I would also, in the past, think about how I’d be able to perform stuff live. In reality my gigs have never been that ‘live’, because they’re so reliant on pre-recorded material. At one point my songs would be entirely electronic, and only have space for one guitar part, because I wanted to be able to perform them live and have them be similar to the recordings. Then when I started to use a laptop rather than a groovebox it would feel less weird to have an acoustic guitar strumming away in the background and another real one in my hands.

Ultimately I always felt the more I went down that road, the less successful the gigs were. The more I felt I needed to ‘perform’ and engage personally with the audience for them to enjoy it. Performing with a laptop feels less ‘live’ than performing with a sequencer does – even if all you do on the sequencer is press play. Strange. I think I slightly offended a fellow laptop-toting artist once by asserting that I’d ‘never seen a genuinely great gig involving a laptop’ – lots of good gigs, lots where I heard good music, but nothing truly exceptional. A possible exception would be Germlin, where Joe would do nothing but scream and throw himself around whilst 100% pre-recorded music came out of his laptop. No real vocals, no ‘playing an instrument’ – but I think it worked better than most because his actions were such a great embodiment of the music the audience was hearing.

Fundamentally I’m a writer before I’m anything else – a singer, instrumentalist, sound recordist, performer – and I’ve just spent a happy few minutes gazing out of the window trying to decide if I listen to so much stuff in that ‘prolific one man band’ genre because I am such a being, or if I am such a being because I’m drawn to that approach. I remember being fascinated by the early solo Graham Coxon records (yeah, that’s my reference point) where he played every instrument, and finding that really appealing. The idea of that independence – much closer to the idea Byrne dismisses of the solo composer’s inspiration, than to the social ‘influenced by context’ writing of a band.

It’s only been the last 12 months where I’ve been part of Local Sports Team, writing genuinely democratically, and making allowances for other people’s musical strengths and shortcomings (usually I only have to contend with my own!), that I’ve realised how writing can be constrained by ability, context, number of hands. At home if I want five guitar tracks I can have them, in LST we have one guitar so I’ve got to make it count. Still I sort of view LST as something I do more for social reasons, and I save my best lyrics for my own stuff. So why do I value this hermitude?

I wonder if it stems from the role music played for me in childhood? One of the reasons I went to so few gigs was because no one would come with me, not because I didn’t have any friends, but because the friends I had didn’t like the music I liked (for the most part). I always felt a bit of an outsider at school, and amongst the friends I had where I lived (which were totally separate groups) so was I drawn to weird music because I wanted to further define myself as an outsider? And did my passion for the likes of Aphex Twin and Tortoise in fact further drive a wedge between me and the people I grew up with (purely a cultural if not social one)?

To this day I know no one who entirely shares my taste in music. There aren’t many records in my collection that someone else I know doesn’t own, but no one has them all (to be fair I do own hundreds and hundreds of records). No one also seems to like stuff in the same way I do. Not many of my friends would read a book called ‘How Music Works’ for example.

William Wordsworth – what a prick

There’s a fear of knowing too much about music, this ‘we murder to dissect’ idea which both I, and David Byrne in the book, categorically reject. The reason I love music as much now as I ever have is precisely because I keep digging into it. I’ve read about sound mixing, about how synths work, about how music affects your brain, about the social context, never mind the linguistic and theoretical stuff around language I did in my degree (woo!). Every new thing you learn about music affects how you hear the music you love. Music isn’t a magic trick, it’s part of what makes us human. If you suddenly understand a bit more about how X artist made the synth sound on song Y then you love the song more, not less. Or I think so anyway…

I’m not saying I like music in a ‘better way’ than people who, say, just enjoy songs that remind them of fun nights out, or see records as souvenirs of great live shows they’ve seen. There are very few songs where I think I like it because it reminds me of something from my personal life. I think I mostly try and engage with music because of whatever I perceive to be ‘innate’ in it. I’m thinking of something like a Fennesz record which is genuinely moving in its raw state – it’s just a beautiful sound – but then I cherish it more because it’s deeply original (sonically, though not compositionally), and I value the idea that he’s found a new way to make sound beautiful.

What Byrne’s book has reminded me is that I bring a whole lot of that to the table myself. There isn’t anything innate in music, it’s a sound which you hear and then it’s gone. Being able to hear the exact same sound over and over is a very new development, and a slightly artificial one. More than ever before you can analyse a ‘composition’ which consists not just of notes and chords, but of how those notes are played and sung, how they’re arranged, and specific decisions about how things sound. Previously music could only have been an event, a specific moment – not a ‘text’.

Reading ‘How Music Works’ has been refreshing, it’s opened my head up a little, and given me a few more ways to appreciate something I love.


One thought on “How Music Works

  1. I know that is how the record companies think, but I do think the relationship between the album and the gig can be massively oversimplified by trying to redefine it in this way. I think the bands who have the best interplay between live and recorded music don’t aim for their live shows and recordings to mimic each other.

    For me, playing live is raw and exciting, it should have energy, it should be fun. I know some artists and bands like to recreate their tracks on the stage, but I hate when a gig feels lacklustre or over-rehearsed, if that is the case I might as well have stayed at home and listed to the record. As you say, there wouldn’t be overpriced booze, potentially bad sound, and almost certainly folk talking over the entire experience.

    Meanwhile, in my view, recordings probably give a more realistic chance to aim at perfection, and to layer things and maybe use a few extra instruments that you probably won’t use live. The sound should be better, and there should be more space in the mix, which can either be left as space, or could be a good place to fit in a little something extra… that something extra might get completely lost if you tried to add it live though.

    I am probably also not part of the new model of how a music ‘consumer’ in the ‘target audience’ ought to behave. I am most likely to buy a record at the show… so the show becomes the advert for the record, almost, rather than the other way around. I think most people don’t want to attend a show for a band they have not yet heard, but that’s not me.

    When will I buy the record? I guess if I particularly enjoyed the set, or if I can’t understand how the live performance might sound on record. Definitely if I think it might be very different AND I enjoyed the set.

    Of course, I can’t drink booze, so if I go out, pay in to a gig, and buy the recorded materials on offer, then I have probably still spent far less money than the average person who was there, and definitely a lot less than anyone who is just out getting hammered, rather than at a gig. I know this paragraph might be sounding a bit preachy, so I will move on.

    I’ve been thinking a bit recently too about formats. My new band are having a crack at recording at the moment. So far I think we are doing a good job, and I am excited about what the finished product might be like. At the moment there are only rough demos on our Soundcloud page, and we put those up very deliberately to try and promote our first gig… I think it worked, plenty of people came along.

    Anyway, we are doing better recordings now, and once we have finished the actual process of producing songs, I find myself thinking about what happens next and what I want from this.

    In order of importance I guess it goes like this:
    1 – Provide songs that people enjoy listening to and get something out of.
    2= – Be able to provide something that people can take home from a gig, so they build a relationship with us and want to come and see us play again.
    2= – Provide something which will help people to decide they would like to come and see us play in the first place.
    4 – Have something to sell that might cover some of the costs of being in a band, and getting yourself and all the gear to gigs.

    Formats then become tricky again. To have something that you can sell at a show, you really need it to be a physical format (which of course costs money).

    Sure, you can stand at the front and say – here’s our URL, please go download some of our songs, we’d really like you to hear them… but people probably won’t remember / be bothered to do that by the time they get home, especially if they have had a few drinks.

    If you say ‘we have some CDs/vinyl, why not come and get one from us after our set’ then people probably will do that, especially if they want to talk to you too (and in this case them having had a few drinks is helpful).

    If you are selling the music, even for a token amount, then I genuinely think people are more likely to listen to it. If you give it away, then they probably won’t, because they won’t have emotionally invested in it either. Also, each physical copy you give away for free is another cost, which is probably the last thing you need after paying for gear / transportation / a practice space, and then getting a pittance from the venue/promoter even though the venue was pretty busy. Actually there is a good chance the promoter and the band have made a loss, so yes, merch and recordings are a good way to try to take some of the pain out of that.

    But standing at the back selling CDs probably doesn’t encourage anyone to help hear your music in the first place and decide to come to the gig, which is sort of the point too… to do that you have to offer them the chance to hear something for free that makes them want to come along. Except even when it’s free and it is there, and easy to listen to, right in front of them on your sound cloud/facebook/wherever, a lot of them won’t click on it anyway, and they won’t value it, because it’s free, just like music should be, apparently.

    Also, if you are offering it for free online, who is going to buy the physical copies that you have paid to produce and taken along to your gig?

    I don’t expect to give up my day job and become a star. I honestly think I would hate that. What I really want is for people to like the music and want to see us play, for people to want to book us for gigs and then lots of people to come along, and for me not to lose all the money that I make during my day job in making this happen (and buying toys which I like and which support this process).

    In conclusion. I love music, but I have no idea how it works. I am not sure it does work, at least economically, in the current climate, and with the current set of technologies and expectations.

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