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How Music Works
How Music Works
David Byrne
McSweeney's, 2012
352 pp., $32.00

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Jeff Johnson


Making Musical Sense

David Byrne's tookit.

Letting the days go by, into silent water
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground
   —The Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"

Guitarist Phil Keaggy and I were never together in the same room when we made our two recent CDs. I sent digital files with keyboard parts via the Internet to Phil, and he sent them back to me with guitar parts added. When we started our careers, decades ago, we never could have imagined such a collaboration.

In How Music Works, David Byrne gives a fascinating overview of just how much the creation, production, distribution, and perception of music has evolved in recent times. Byrne, the creative force behind the band the Talking Heads, is not only a celebrated pop musician: his success as a recording artist has spawned creative endeavors as varied as managing his own record company, directing films, designing interactive sound installations, writing books about bicycle adventures, and creating a New York theatrical production.

As his resumé suggests, Byrne knows how to take an initial creative idea and follow it through to completion. The experiences he describes in How Music Works are fascinating and entertaining in their own right, but the book also offers valuable advice to the aspiring musician—the more hats you wear in the process of making music, the better chance you'll have of surviving in the business.

Byrne began his career living near and performing at the legendary New York venue CBGB. It was there, beginning in 1974, that he not only cut his musical chops but experienced a real sense of community with other artists. Into this personal narrative, Byrne weaves insights into developing and collaborating with other musicians, staging a show based on a venue's limitations, choosing the right clothes to wear onstage, and even adapting one's personal deficiencies to performance: "Years later," he writes, "I diagnosed myself as having a very mild (I think) form of Asperger's syndrome. Leaping up in public ...

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