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How Music Works

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  21,508 ratings  ·  1,337 reviews
Best known as a founding member and principal songwriter of the iconic band Talking Heads, David Byrne has received Grammy, Oscar, and Golden Globe awards and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the insightful How Music Works, Byrne offers his unique perspective on music - including how music is shaped by time, how recording technologies transform the ...more
Hardcover, 345 pages
Published September 12th 2012 by McSweeney's (first published 2012)
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Average rating 3.98  · 
Rating details
 ·  21,508 ratings  ·  1,337 reviews

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May 26, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2015
“But at times words can be a dangerous addition to music — they can pin it down. Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more...
― David Byrne, How Music Works


...If done poorly, they can destroy the pleasant ambiguity that constitutes much of the reason we love music. That ambiguity allows listeners to psychologically tailor a song to suit their needs, sensibilities, and situations, but words can limit that, too. There are plenty of beautiful tracks that I
Feb 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019, music
David Byrne is our great charlatan. He stands up there twitching and tweaking and exhorting, like an amateur weatherman who thinks too much about his hands. Like a caricature of an amateur weatherman. Like a snake oil salesman. He speaks in tongues. "You may tell yourself, 'This is not my beautiful wife,'" he suggests insidiously. "Take a look at these hands. I’m a tumbler." Behind him the Talking Heads hijack Afropop, hip hop, funk. They are extremely funky. Years before Graceland, the Heads we ...more
Loring Wirbel
Dec 31, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I approached Byrne's latest with a little trepidation, due to a less than stellar NY Times review, and due to the number of people in the music industry (notably his own former bandmates in Talking Heads) who feel somewhat mistreated by Byrne. I was ready to read something that might be a bit arrogant, but was pleasantly surprised to read a folksy, fun, and exuberantly-written series of essays about how the 21st-century music industry operates, how the disappearance of the physical artifact (CD ...more
Jul 06, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As this started out, my heart started rolling her eyes. "Great," she said, "another pretentious white guy talking out his ass about music." Some annoyances from the first couple chapters include a lot of multicultural chatter that basically amounts to "I have a black friend!" + sweeping generalizations about disciplines he hasn't bothered to research (particularly media and literature). Ugh. I don't even like Talking Heads. Somewhere in the second chapter about Byrne's personal musical journey, ...more
Jun 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
There is a lot of information about musical roots and how musicians worked to perfect their sound according to what worked best with their style. I was fascinated by the facts about the designs of opera houses, concert halls and clubs.
There are some entertaining tidbits in this book which covers not only the history but the decisions on Byrne's bands, music, and even clothing choices. It was an enjoyable read and I was provided this paperback copy by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest
Jud Barry
Dec 20, 2012 rated it liked it
Byrne gives us his take on music in a style that is very pleasant, straightforward, and conversational. He comes across as someone whose wide-ranging, collaborative experience and creative intelligence combine with an everyday kind of modesty in a way that allows you to imagine you could run into him in a club somewhere (he tries to take in at least one live performance a week) and have a good conversation, provided the music lets you (one of his criteria for a good music scene).

The title is a l
Nov 29, 2012 rated it liked it
An uneven, often enjoyable, but ultimately disappointing read. My disappointment stems–as, I'm sure, will most readers' interest in the first place (mine included)–from my deep admiration and subsequent expectations of David Byrne. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Byrne writes that he didn't set out to write an aging rocker bio, nor a set of "think pieces," but a bit of both. The book is most interesting and successful in the biographical chapters: reading David Byrne's anecdotes a ...more
Jan 31, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
This book fails to live up to its title, and indeed to the name of its author, who's musical career might lead you to expect that he has some interesting insight into the question of how music works.

What you get instead is a cursory and unfocused ramble through recent history of music technology and theory, loosely tied together with some personal anecdotes and sophomoric pseudo-philosophy courtesy of Byrne himself.

There are some interesting tidbits along the way, particularly some of the histo
Nov 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I have been a Talking Heads listener for 30 years. For some reason that escapes me now I began to read How Music Works. To my delight I found it compelling.

While much of the text is almost a autobiographical narrative of the creating of Byrne's musical corpus, the role of that narrative is quite different than one might expect. I take the book to be a discussion, a philosophical discussion in the best sense, of the creative process. I am reminded of Wittgenstein's metaphor of coming to understan
Michelle Curie
Dec 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, nonfiction
Super fun and informative read that I as someone who's passionate about music and curious about its history, recording and distribution and importance in different cultures truly enjoyed.

David Byrne will already be familiar to those who have dipped into (or lived through) the music of the 80s, as he's the known as the driving force behind the wonderfully experimental band Talking Heads. I have to admit that this significantly influenced my decision of reading this, as I already hold his musical
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Toe-tappers, finger-snappers, whistlers and hummers
Recommended to Alan by: Denis, via Peter. And of course the man himself.
David Byrne's How Music Works was a perfect book for me to take traveling—dense with information, observations and concrete advice, all organized in manageable sections and copioiusly illustrated. Byrne delivers most handsomely on his title's promise: these essays are nothing less than the collected ruminations of a multi-talented musician on his long-practiced and still vibrant craft.

Byrne is also (and not coincidentally, I'm sure) a lifelong neophile, whose mind has remained supple over the pa
Cheryl struggles to catch up
Jun 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
Fascinating. Even though I know nothing about music, not even to know the difference between a chord and a chorus, nor have I been able to either enjoy or appreciate Talking Heads or Byrne's other music, I thoroughly enjoyed most of this book. I do admit to feeling overwhelmed enough, or lost enough, to skim bits, but something on the next page would always draw me back in....

Most interesting stuff needs context and so is too long to share here, but I've got a few tidbits to offer:

"Some argue th
Ben Winch
Jul 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
This is great. Good. Okay. All of the above. It’s unique (so far as I know): its closest relative is probably Miles Davis’s autobiography, or Byrne-friend Brian Eno’s Year With Swollen Appendices. It’s autobiographical, in a strictly professional/artistic sense – that is, concerned with music over personal experience – and I applaud that. Early on, when I was still in the “dipping-into” phase (something I do with all rock music books) I wondered, against my better judgement, if it was some kind ...more
Sep 08, 2012 rated it it was amazing
My review for Amazon's Best Books of the Month: It's no surprise that David Byrne knows his music. As the creative force behind Talking Heads and many solo and collaborative ventures, he's been writing, playing, and recording music for decades. What is surprising is how well his voice translates to the page. In this wide-ranging, occasionally autobiographical analysis of the evolution and inner workings of the music industry, Byrne explores his own deep curiosity about the "patterns in how music ...more
Aug 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The book was totally amazing.
Mar 15, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
4 Stars for How Music Works (audiobook) by David Byrne read by Walter Dixon. This is a really informative book. If you’re just interested in music or planning on starting a band this is great book for you. Particularly if you’re a fan of the band Talking Heads. David Byrne explains everything from why songs are three minutes long to how a 360 music contract works and everything in between.
Sep 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
As much as I am a fan of Talking Heads and David Byrne, when he wrote a book about bicycling a couple of years ago, I picked it up but I didn't get very far. Not a big fan of bicycles. But I am a big fan of music. So when David Byrne writes a book explaining music, I AM THERE.

This should be required reading for anyone who has even a sliver of desire for making music for a living. You don't need to be a fan of Byrne's music to appreciate the fruits of his experience, talent and insight. This is a
Jan 10, 2020 rated it really liked it
An odd book, but I really liked it. Partly about his own life as a musician, partly about the music business, partly about what music actually is, partly about how music fits in with human psychology and culture. Maybe there are some other parts too... I love Byrne’s conversational writing style. He doesn’t sound at all like a professional book-writer, more like a wonderfully intelligent and knowledgeable yet humble and self-deprecating friend sitting in your living room and just speaking to you ...more
Dec 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: music
I expected ex-Talking Heads front man and eclectic solo artist David Byrne would have some interesting things to say about music. But I was impressed by the scope and range of How Music Works. Byrne covers nearly every aspect of creating and enjoying music from the first steps of composing and to the nuances of performance to producing and promoting. Plus he puts it in sync with the world we live in never forgetting that music is a vital and ever-changing aspect of existence.

Byrne approaches mu
Dec 08, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I felt like I learned a lot about music by reading this. I knew almost nothing when I started reading, and it's nice to read a book where you feel like you have learned something from every page. It's remarkably comprehensive too, with chapters on the theory, practice, history, creation, and business of music. It's all here, and presented in a way that even a music noob like me can understand and process. There are so many thought provoking nuggets in this book, I almost feel like I want to quot ...more
Mar 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Three stars because i liked it. Its more of a 3.5 , but rounding down because too many issues.

This book is a classic case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Part autobiography, part pop-sci book on music, part New Yorker-style expose on the nature of the arts. You get bits of all of it, but you cant help feeling that you are missing out on a lot. Maybe thats the point - a jumping off point? Except you don't really know what you are missing.

For a book that is about "how music wor
Nov 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I LOVED this. Devoured it. Byrne is incisive and articulate and offers new way of seeing (and hearing) music. I do a good deal of business writing and no longer often find myself on fire to get something written down, but from the start of this book I was itching to tie Byrne's ideas on music as "content" to my own work. As so many of my Goodreads connections are in L&D I especially recommend it to them, as I'm sure the parallels will be inescapable to them as well. Music lovers, too, should enj ...more
This really was a joy to read. Touching on all aspects (and genres) of music, from how technology shapes our perceptions of what music should be, to what to expect from a recording contract, this book really does cover it all.

David Byrne (frontman from Talking Heads), is engaging, funny, insightful, immensely knowledgeable and more importantly, enthusiastic about a subject he has dedicated his life too.

The one thing that stopped this book rating higher for me is that it sometimes reads slightly
Honestly, it just feels like this didn't age especially well, even though it's only been eight years. It's not David Byrne's fault, obviously, but to a 2020 reader, it feels wrong to talk about the evolution of music without talking about, like, soundcloud rap and Billie Eilish. He does discuss the history of recording devices and the fate of the record studio, so I guess we can all just infer.

Something I Liked: Byrne sees music and lyrics as generators of emotions, not as expressions of it. The
Oct 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, music
This was good! David Byrne takes a comprehensive, largely pragmatic survey of all aspects of music. He spends a lot of time refuting musical/artistic myths. For example, he definitely doesn't think music is made by inspired geniuses. It comes from hard work and practice. And more boringly, is usually steered by format--of venue, medium, larger cultural contexts, record company obligations--as much as creative whim. He also talks about the recording process, how technology has changed it, and wha ...more
Feb 04, 2019 rated it liked it
Overlooking the occasional grammatical or spelling error (aHEM, editing is always a good idea, y’know...) and the seemingly random, long-winded tangents that strained my patience, this did really open my eyes to different aspects of music, and change the way I look at (or rather, listen to) music.
Orsi Pusok
Jul 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A great book for any music lover curious to have a look behind the scenes of how music is made - literally.
My favorite parts were the thoughts around music monetization, society's view on what constitutes as quality music and the author's walk down memory lane linked with a brief history of music.
Tony Bertino
Jun 16, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This David Byrne guy really seems to know what he's talking about. Big career ahead of him if he keeps it up. ...more
Jan 26, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I love how nerdy David Byrne is
Stevie Dunbar
Oct 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'm writing about the book I read ...more
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A cofounder of the musical group Talking Heads, David Byrne has also released several solo albums in addition to collaborating with such noted artists as Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Brian Eno. His art includes photography and installation works and has been published in five books. He lives in New York and he recently added some new bike racks of his own design around town, thanks to the Depar ...more

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