Revealing How Music Works

Sampling How Music Works By David Byrne

Reading this engaging and informative overview of how music works by David Byrne of the band Talking Heads, I was struck by just how much our approach to and appreciation of music is conditioned.

My generation grew up with big name bands that sold millions of recordings around the world. Our engagement with music was ironically quite passive – hey we didn’t even dance properly. We went to concerts and bought records. Some of us were inspired to pick up a guitar but having measured ourselves against recording artists, we tended to put it down again.

American film editor and sound designer Walter Murk notes that in the past ‘music was the main poetic metaphor for that which could not be preserved’. Perhaps you would hear it in church, the concert hall or the ballroom. Or there might be a piano in the parlour or the pub. There’s a nice quote from TS Elliot: ‘you are the music while the music lasts’.

Mechanical Music

This started to change with the arrival of the phonograph in 1878. Murk says that over the years what was originally a simulation of performance became the thing itself; ‘the recording has supplanted the performance’.  Interestingly the famous Canadian pianist and Bach interpreter Glen Gould turned his back on the concert hall in favour of the studio and the control if offered.

In 1906 John Philip Sousa wrote a pamphlet – The Menace of Mechanical Music – bemoaning the fact that recorded music was ‘sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion’ and foresaw ‘a marked deterioration in American music’. For him ‘the prospect of recorded music was a thought as unhappy and incongruous as (eating) canned salmon by a trout brook’.

More recently the financial and technological barriers that protected the recording industry have come tumbling down and along with them the market for recordings as a product. Today, if the popularity and cost of concerts and festivals is anything to go by, the big money is to be made in the ‘trout brook’ as opposed to the cannery

And while we may have lost the old music industry we have regained the playing of music. You can go out every night in London and play or listen at an open mic session; fresh and authentic sounds, ranging from the highly professional to the rough and ready amateur. You can record a song on your phone and you can post and share it on Soundcloud.

For all those that get up and give it a go, Byrne includes a nice piece of encouragement from the filmmaker Fernando Trueba.  He suggests that ‘the ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude of the amateur is another precious commodity’ and says of his colleagues in the film industry that ‘the best films are the ones they didn’t care that much about’.

Venues and creation

The book starts by looking at the relationship between venues and music with Byrne suggesting that, ‘opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention’.  For Talking Heads, the boxy little club CBGBs in New York was the perfect venue to hear the band sound at its best.

Similarly drums work outdoors, organs sound good in churches, and orchestras were designed for palaces, hip hop works in cars, folk music in cafes, heavy metal in stadia, dance music in warehouses. This is what Byrne means when he writes of music being ‘perfectly suited to its context’.

Reading How Music Works encourages the reader to think outside the box. Where else can and should one be thinking of performing. One orchestra has taken performance out of the concert hall and put it into a multi-storey car park in Peckham Rye South London.

Or you can go virtual. With the advent of recorded music ‘the phonograph in the parlour became a new venue’. Today YouTube performs a similar function. Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers perform covers in their van and their version of the Hall & Oates’ classic‘I can’t go for that’ has approaching 2.8 million hits.

What a performance

Performance has changed and evolved over the years. For example, those jazz solos evolved because the band was hot, the dance floor was full and they needed to keep playing that popular section for the dancers. And I thought it was the musicians being self-indulgent!

There’s a nice piece where Byrne talks about band dynamics. He writes that ‘tight’ doesn’t actually mean everyone plays exactly to the beat; it means ‘everyone plays together’.  And later he notes that ‘the emotional centre is not the technical centre, that funky grooves are not square and what sounds like a simple beat can either be sensuous or simply a metronomic timekeeper’.

Technology has played a big part in the evolution of music and performance. Amplification distorted the guitar and it also sweetened the song! Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra were only able to croon thanks to the evolution of the microphone. This made it possible to sing soft and sweet without losing the necessary volume to be heard.

Of course technology also played a big part in composition. The limitations of the single and LP governed the running time of a piece of music. The advent of digital means that these restrictions no longer exist but the convention remains in our minds. And that means a single is usually under 3 minutes … but it doesn’t have to be!

Sound of silence

Byrne mentions that in 1969 the General Assembly of UNESCO published a resolution outlining the rights of man to silence. Silence is the canvas that music is painted on but as the musician and composer John Cage found out when he entered an anechoic chamber, silence is very hard to find, sound is everywhere.

This is the certainly the case for Matthew Whittaker who was born 23 weeks prematurely. Blind from birth he has an amazing musical ability and now plays 11 instruments. But it is his take on New York where he goes each week to play and study music that impresses: ‘New York is a circle of sounds, music everywhere … its musical dark and so beautiful’.

Byrne takes a quote from Marshall McLuhan, author of Understanding Media that really opens one’s ears: ‘In an acoustic universe one senses essence whereas in a visual universe one sees categories and hierarchies … by blocking your sight, a wall can erase the existence of a man shouting on the other side’.

So this book is as much about silence as it is about music, about listening as it is about performing. It contains chapters on how to record, how to write lyrics and how the business works. But the bits that really inspired me were the ones about the art and the existential aspects of music.

John Cage looking at an ashtray and recognising that it is a state of vibration. You could listen to it and ‘the object would become process … we would discover the meaning of nature through the music of objects’. Which seems a good place to stop this review of How Music Works.

One thought on “Revealing How Music Works

  1. Fascinating review Mr L-P – I intend to follow the links you have included. There are times I wonder of life’s purpose, I cannot recall occurring whilst singing, dancing or ‘musicing’. Is this something about being a verb. Verbing together is better still. Look forward to some more musicing ensemble 🙂 xx

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