How Music Works by David Byrne - review

David Byrne's arty, commonsense reflections intrigue Michel Faber

Given the vastness of the subject, calling a treatise How Music Works seems intellectually arrogant, but it could also be seen as disarmingly frank, a fresh perspective from a down-to-earth mind. David Byrne's book, although it's a self-conscious art object (backwards pagination, upholstered cover and so on) contains plenty of plain-spoken, sensible observations: a dichotomy typical of the man. "Sophisticated innocent" is the Talking Heads singer's trademark identity.

In the introduction, Byrne lists all the things his book will not tackle, but he ends up tackling most of them regardless. How Music Works is wonderfully wide-ranging, covering the prehistoric origins of music, Madonna's contracts, the musicality of animals, pie charts of earnings from his recent collaboration with Brian Eno, Pythagorean acousmatics, the compositional limitations of Midi software, Algerian pop, the Filipino People Power revolution, the ethics of philanthropy, 16 pages of tips on how to create a happening nightclub, and music's physiological and neurological effects ("not really my brief here", but he sneaks in a few pages anyway).

Anyone familiar with Byrne's song lyrics or spoken-word theatre projects will recognise his artfully artless narrative tone. Ruminating on the 18th century ("back in the day"), Byrne remarks that "meanwhile, some folks around that same time were going to hear operas." At its best, this approach cuts through the metaphysical waffle that often passes for music criticism and helps tease out what is common to punk clubs and La Scala. At its worst, it comes across as a faux-naive shtick that detracts from the content.

Despite the opening disclaimer that "this is not an autobiographical account of my life as a singer and musician", a good half of the book could be described as just that. True, the text is always free to digress into architecture, birdsong and diatonic bone flutes, but we are also shown Byrne's evolution through high school bands, art school busking, Talking Heads' album-by-album rise to fame, and the subsequent solo career. Byrne seems happy enough to revisit the early days but it's an oddly anodyne, airbrushed history. The ego clashes and resentments that led to one of rock's messiest break-ups, complete with public recriminations and lawsuits, are simply absent here, as David, Tina, Chris and Jerry have fun writing, recording and performing their songs about buildings and food. Could this be a coded message to his fellow musketeers, signalling a green light for a ful-blown Talking Heads reunion?

Certainly Byrne comes across an amiable, tolerant soul. Not for him the righteous rants of Luddite oldsters such as Neil Young and Bob Dylan who lament digital technology. MP3s constitute the bulk of his listening nowadays, though he notes that he was immensely moved by music he heard as a kid on "crappy" transistor radios. He quotes "information theory" to prove that hearing is much more than a passive reception by our ears of a non-negotiable amount of data – we shape the sounds in our minds, filling in what's not there, amplifying or remixing what is. But, having appeared to make a stand in favour of MP3s, Byrne retreats to the fence, conceding that some indefinable quality may nevertheless have been sacrificed – "Or maybe not."

Musicologists looking for academic rigour will be unimpressed by some half-baked arguments and creaky assertions (improvisation was invented in the 20th century by jazz bands, lack of percussion is what makes poetry less popular than rap). An indecent proportion of the text is paraphrased or quoted from Greg Milner's superb Perfecting Sound Forever and Mark Katz's Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. But then, this is very much the sort of tour where our guide will mention, out of the blue: "Penelope Gouk of the University of Manchester wrote a wonderful essay called 'Raising Spirits and Restoring Souls: Early Modern Medical Explanations for Music's Effects'." If you accept Byrne as a raconteur with a broad intellect and stellar musical accomplishments, you will find his conversation enjoyable and thought-provoking. It should not be forgotten that he was largely responsible for two of the greatest albums ever made – Remain in Light and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the latter of which gets plentiful coverage here.

But past is past. Everyone knows that the music industry is in terminal decline. Unlike many doomsayers, however, Byrne feels the changed landscape is good for musicians. Even 20 years ago, any artist wishing to make a record needed a huge sum of money to pay for studio time (and thus needed a large corporation to loan it to him). A lucky few shifted the millions of units necessary to repay the industry's investment, but the majority got hopelessly into debt. Nowadays, recording costs are "approaching zero". Distribution costs in the digital era are also negligible compared to the days of physical warehousing. As long as artists can find ways of holding on to a fair percentage of their income (an impossible challenge in the heyday of the record companies), even modest sales can sustain a career.

Indeed, says Byrne, "there have never been more opportunities for a musician to reach an audience." He discusses, in detail, six viable models of doing business, and it's this discussion that makes the book worth buying if you're not a fan of the man's music or his magpie mind.

What? You want me to summarise those six models for you? Ah, but then this review would become like an illegal download of the book. If there's one lesson that musicians have learned, it's that artists can be as arty as they like, but if they're to survive, they must have a secret to sell. And Byrne's secret, which the music industry and the nostalgists have yet to learn, is that although the ecosystem in which Karajan, Led Zeppelin and Joe Boyd flourished is dead and gone, music is in no danger of extinction.

• Michel Faber's The Fire Gospel is published by Canongate.


Michel Faber

The GuardianTramp

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