Weekly Read: How Music Works

Usually I write a review just after I finish a book, when it’s fresh in my memory and I’m inspired to say something about it. I finished this book two months ago and instantly wrote most of below. Then things happened and it kind of got away from me. I’ve returned to it several times, but can’t really muster up the enthusiasm to put the finishing touches on it. But it’s got some value, I think, so I present it here with this disclaimer. Given the book at issue, think of it as a demo version of a song that never got finished.

Book titles can be tricky things. We fictions writers have it easy, since we can do almost anything and it works, more or less (I lean towards using locations that are important to the story, hence Moore Hollow and The Water Road). Nonfiction writers have to be careful, though, because a title of a nonfiction book is almost a promise, a declaration of what kind of book the reader is getting into.

How Music Works is not a very good title for the book to which it’s attached. The title promises something like a pop science treatment on sound, how it’s produced and how it rattles around in our brains. Instead, as written by musician David Byrne (no relation, although I sometimes refer to him as “Uncle David” in an attempt to sound cool) of Talking Heads fame, it’s much more wide ranging and, yet, more personal overview of what shapes music that you listen to. It’s often interesting on its own terms, even if its terms it doesn’t want to recognize.

In the introduction, Cousin David says that the book isn’t about him, but he does use experiences  from his own career to illuminate certain subjects. And while it’s true that this isn’t just a rock star bio, Byrne nonetheless spends an awful lot of time canvassing his lengthy career. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – he knows of what he speaks. But it limits the discussion in a lot of places. He could have dived deeper into certain issues by seeking out interviews with others. For  example, he talks about how technology has changed the way music is recorded and that lots of professional recording is now done in home studios. He admits that some folks still prefer the big studio treatment, but doesn’t go into why and whether it’s something that’s going to live on.

Byrne’s probably at his best when he’s discussing the ways in which technology has changed the  way music is consumed. It’s not a new theory – that music was once mostly consumed as live performance, either by professionals or amateurs in the home, whereas now it’s mostly consumed in recorded form – but he gives it a comprehensive airing. It’s an interesting thing to ponder, to wonder how different music is when it’s something you do, rather than just something you experience.

In fact, my favorite part of the book is a chapter titled “Amateurism.” It’s less a celebration of mediocrity than it is celebrating the idea of people making art for themselves. It’s not an either or thing – Cousin David wouldn’t suggest nobody buy music from “professionals” anymore. But actually making music, even if you know it’s nowhere near “perfect” or worth sharing with a wide audience, can be very rewarding. Speaking for myself, I love actually making music (insert shameless plug), even if hardly anybody actually listens to it.

Having said that, it’s in this chapter that Byrne says something that’s gotten him in trouble. In talking about “high” art versus “low,” he writes:

I never got Bach, Mozart or Beethoven – and don’t feel any worse for it.

A lot of people, exemplified by this guy in the Amazon reviews, read this as Byrne shitting on classical music, deriding it as a means to lift up popular music. I don’t read it the same way.

Instead, I think he’s calling into question the idea of segregating music (and other forms of art) into “high” and “low,” which then tends to inform society’s ideas of what is worthy of support and what isn’t. He’s not wrong that lots of popular forms of music tend to have subversive elements (or at least are believed to be). It’s also true that the newly rich look to institutions of “high” art as a means of buying their way into high society. Notably, he doesn’t call for such things to stop or be illegal or anything like that. He just wonders what it might be like if a newly minted billionaire might decide to support a rock or hip-hop club that developed new acts, rather than sign up as a symphony patron.

I’ve never been a fan of tagging some music as “serious,” which, by definition, means the rest of it isn’t. Tell me Robert Fripp, perched on a stool near the back of a King Crimson stage barely visible, isn’t being serious about the music. Tell me that that a blues player, like the late BB King, who sweats his very soul into what he plays, wasn’t serious about his music. Hell, tell me that Frank Zappa, in the middle of some kind of stage buffoonery that looks like pure silliness, wasn’t deadly serious about his music. You can’t. Music, like most art, is as serious as you want to make it, but that doesn’t have a damned thing to do with whether you’re playing in a symphony hall or a greasy dive.

More than anything else, I just don’t see the great sin in saying “I never got” a piece of art or music and refusing to feel bad for it.

how music works


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