I've been a fan of music for almost as long as I can remember, whether it was the songs that first captured my attention on the radio (embarrassingly Status Quo's 'In The Army Now' is one of my earliest musical memories), Top Of The Pops (Kylie anyone?) or the music my father used to play in the car and seemingly impossibly late (to my young ears) at parties (Tears For Fears and the Thompson Twins). When I was about twelve I started buying my first music and within a year of so it quickly became the thing that defined a lot of what I was as a person: a rapid, insatiable appetite. It could explain what I felt inside. It was a badge to be worn metaphorically or sometimes literally, telling those around me what sort of person I was.
Of course music, and the way people consume it, is always changing. My own relationship has changed massively - through times of increased or lessened importance, at times I continue to be bowled over by how much music can affect me and at others I just want to pack it all away and embrace silence. The way we consume music now - with us at all times, on our phones and in our pockets, and with more songs at our fingertips than even imaginable 15 years ago: sometimes means we take it for granted. Maintaining a music blog can make this relationship even stranger - a little too often listening to a new album by an artist you think you genuinely appreciate feels a bit too much like "work". Listen, think, write, move on to the next...
I've read a number of books about music over the years. These tend to either focus on specific aspects, artists or genres or instead deal with broader phenomenon. Last year I commented on Simon Reynolds' Retromania, a book that intrigued, depressed and annoyed me in equal measures to the point where I felt a little bit like I may be going off long form writing about music, especially about popular music.
David Byrne's How Music Works isn't at all like any other book I've read about music and it feels like breathing fresh air. First I shall pause briefly on a little criticism, simply to get it out the way - much of what follows beyond that will be quite the opposite. Byrne is a natural raconteur. How Music Works is a beautifully presented work in hardback - a striking, cushioned cover, colour throughout, clean and well spaced type. It is a joy to read and, unlike the work of Reynolds for example, very easy to read. It is almost like an interesting rambling chat with the man himself.
And here's the rub, my little nugget of criticism: music books often lack academic rigour and here Byrne sometimes pontificates and devises theories without much to back them up. Or he seems to simply cherry pick those he likes from others. That these ideas are often so interesting and feel (at least to me) intuitive makes it hard to begrudge Byrne's approach though. Save the academics for academies - I finished my schooling some ten years ago so I shall happily take a little pinch of salt with in exchange for interesting read.
Everything else about this book is a marvel. As I have already tried to evidence here (and across hundreds of pieces and almost eight years of maintaining this site), I have spent a lot of time thinking about, writing about and consuming music. I've spent more money than I care to think about on music and can't even begin to comprehend how much actual time I've spent listening to music (2 or so hours a day for almost 20 years?). Despite this the very first chapter (18 pages long) significantly changed the way I think about music.
There are a number of key themes here and the book can broadly be divided into three areas, though these aren't segregated and visited in turn so much as called upon as needed, as they would in a conversation. These themes are Byrne himself, history & theory and business.
Byrne is clear upfront that this book is not his autobiography. He spends a significant proportion of the novel discussing his musical life and career, though mainly with reference to how it affects the way he thinks about music (or vice versa) and never to detail anything personal that doesn't relate to that central theme. We hear about Talking Heads and CBGB's (a lot), working with Eno and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, X-press 2 and more. The autobiographical elements are interesting, but probably the least essential of the three.
The historical and theoretical elements deal with where music came from and what makes it sound like it does - there is biology and astronomy and a lot between the two. Crucially Byrne emphasises the importance of context to the sound of music (why does music made for churches drone, whilst African drumming is percussive?) and you could boil this down to Marshall McLuhan's observation - the medium is the message, though Byrne makes no specific mention of this connection to McLuhan's theory.
The final area, the business, is perhaps the most revelatory and is largely free of my earlier, mild criticism. Byrne describes the way business and technology have changed music and he is, refreshingly, positive about technology, be it MP3s or the impact on changing business models. Charts are detailed that explain the outgoings for one of his albums and our author is surprisingly candid about his business experiences within music. Crucially Byrne details six models (these are sort-of non-definitive templates) for the business of music. Frankly if you have ever thought about working in music this is totally essential reading - I discovered more here about the music business than I have in years of listening, blogging and (through an admittedly short stink in a record store) working in music.
How Music Works is almost always revelatory and Byrne is clearly intellectually sharp and a strong writer. In short, this is the best book about the subject of music I've ever read and I would recommend anyone seriously interested in music read it.