How Music Works Summary and Review

by David Byrne
  Has How Music Works by David Byrne been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.   Numerous rock stars have written books regarding their careers, but never before has a rock star said that they would explain How Music Works. Yet, this book summary will do exactly that. From writing songs to producing records, beginning with the age of Neanderthals to the latest hits, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world of music. You’ll learn why traffic sounds impact the way birds sing and how the music we create is likewise influenced by our surroundings. You’ll also discover why some clubs grow into vibrant music scenes while others linger in obscurity. Lastly, you’ll read about the societal power of music, including how it can improve high crime rates and boost young people out of deep poverty.

Our Surroundings Can Determine the Kind of Music We Make

Consider a piece of music that affects you: do you think that it originated from a “place within” the artist? If your answer is “yes,” you’re not alone in this belief: most people hold that music develops out of some internal emotion. Think of how easy it is to conjure up an image of a composer abruptly seized by inspiration, furiously scribbling down a fully developed composition. We also would ordinarily assume that musical compositions entirely depend on their creators’ skills. For instance, most people consider Western medieval music to be harmonically “simple” because composers had yet to develop the ability to apply more complex harmonies. But these assumptions are incorrect and it actually works the other way: we produce music that befits the context available to us. For example, long notes and gradually progressing melodies work wonderfully in stone-walled Gothic cathedrals because sounds resonate for an extended period in this setting. Medieval music played in these cathedrals had to be harmonically “simple” since shifting musical keys would end in dissonance, as notes overlapped and conflicted. Furthermore, with the influx of new technologies came fresh methods of singing. The advent of the microphone, for instance, meant that singers no longer had to have excellent lungs to project their voice. This led artists such as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to adjust their vocal dynamics radically. They ended up becoming pioneers in the practice of singing “to the microphone.” However, the phenomenon of modifying music to its surrounding context is not restricted to humans. Research shows that different animals’ songs have evolved to suit their environment. In San Francisco, birds have slowly increased the pitch of their singing so they can be heard over the heightened traffic noise. And, in the last few decades, whales have adapted their calls to be detected over the increased shipping noise.

The Advent of Recording Technology 

In 1878, the first music recording was created, liberating music from its live, real-time context. It has made a huge influence on both how music is conceived and experienced. As recording grew into universal practice, it transformed how we played instruments and sang. For instance, bands had to perform at more precise tempos because if they were unsteady it sounded sloppier since they were missing the “distraction” of a performance’s visual component. The conclusion was that these artists had to learn to play to an internal metronome. Also, the application of vibrato became commonplace. Vibrato means a wavering in pitch, a technique frequently utilized by string players or singers. It obscures the precise pitch of performance and, concerning singing, was actually initially regarded as “cheating.” But since even the smallest inconsistencies in pitch were discernible in recordings, vibrato became helpful to cover up mistakes. Now, we’re so used to vibrato that we take it for granted. Indeed, we’d likely even find classical string playing and opera without vibrato unusual. Recording technology has additionally modified the way that we hear music. American composer John Philip Sousa was against recorded music. He was fearful that the technology would replace actual humans creating music, eventually diminishing the expression and experience of it all to a mathematical system of “revolving things,” such as megaphones, wheels, and discs. To some extent, his concern was realized: when we consider a piece of music, we now think of the sound of a particular recording. Likewise, the live performance of that same piece is now often viewed as an interpretation of the recorded version. However, twentieth-century philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno had a somewhat more optimistic outlook on what occurs with our experience when the visual performance of music is taken away. He simply declared that music could be acknowledged more objectively.

The Composition and Sonic Quality of Music 

The creation of digital technology was an unforeseen result of phone-related research by Bell Labs. In 1962, the researchers calculated how to digitize sound by dividing sound waves into “slices” to be interpreted as ones and zeros. This has considerably affected music’s sonic quality and composition. When a digital sound recording is created, the audio is divided into a measurable number of slices. We understand these slices as a continuous audio spectrum even though the sound is made of separate steps. Even though many of us can’t recognize the distinction, the sonic quality of digital recordings does differ from analog media, which reproduces spectrums of sound with an endless amount of gradations.  One effect of digital recording people do tend to catch is what’s usually called “digital cleanliness.” Those people experience such crisp recordings as soulless and prefer to stay with their cassettes and vinyl. Digital technology hasn’t just revolutionized how music sounds but also how it’s composed. For example, pop recordings produced with computers are often quantized, meaning the tempo doesn’t change. Quantizing is so popular because it makes a song’s rhythm tight, simultaneously expediting editing and arranging on the computer screen. Some, including the author, feel that, though quantization can be a good aid, it sometimes makes music sound too uniform. Another impact digital technology has had on composition results from the use of MIDI, or musical instrument digital interface. MIDI operates by encoding musical notes as ones and zeroes instead of actual sounds. But being that MIDI isn’t especially sensitive to the nuances of, say, string instruments, it’s mainly keyboards and percussion pads that can trigger MIDI adequately. So, by inclining composers to use particular instruments, MIDI really ends up affecting how music is composed.

Bands Recording Individually Versus Together 

Recording music isn’t only about capturing a band or musician’s sound. It’s an art form in itself and affects music significantly. And, just like many other art forms, you can blend different methods of recording, each with their pros and cons. Firstly, there’s the divide-and-isolate approach, where the producer and recording engineer have a major responsibility for how the record ultimately will sound. In the late ‘70s, this was the prevailing form of recording music: isolating each instrument to get as clean and clear a sound as possible. For example, the drummer would be put in their own booth and the bassist would be enclosed with sound-absorbent panels to effectively separate them. This way, the producer could take the music apart and put it all together again, thereby sustaining control through as much of the process as they could. As you may expect, this technique meant that some of the organic interactions between the musicians weren’t there, which had a considerable impact on the recording. In fact, numerous musicians feel that a recording will represent the band more accurately if they’re recorded collectively without any of the customary sonic isolation. Despite the chance of a muddy or sloppy recording, many bands find that to be a suitable means to record their music being that they’re used to playing together already. Moreover, the ability to hear the entire band playing also tends to make the performances more natural and inspired. In the present day, no dogma in the recording business is adhered to as stringently as they were back in the late ‘70s. It’s not necessary to pick between divide-and-isolate or all-together-at-once methods; sometimes several approaches even coexist on the same recording, each influencing the music uniquely.

Why Collaborating is So Important 

Collaboration has always served as an important aspect of music creation: think of the many notable songwriting duos such as Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards. Popular as ever, now collaborating doesn’t even require the contributors to be in the same country. Instead, it can be based on transferring digital music files between the musicians. To create their record Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, Byrne and producer Brian Eno had a long-distance collaboration. Eno emailed musical sketches to Byrne; Byrne would add vocals and return it to Eno, and so on until their album was finished. Though there’s a higher risk of miscommunication in operating this way, there’s also great advantages, like having more time to reflect before having to develop the next idea. Plus, there are several creative benefits to working in a team, regardless of how the collaboration is carried out. First, there’s a better opportunity for weaker ideas to be improved. For instance, the author’s song “Psycho Killer” was originally meant to be a ballad, but when the other members of Talking Heads joined in, the song attained more energetic spirit that later proved to be very popular with their audience. Second, collective improvisations may lead to places that wouldn’t otherwise be reached. Talking Heads, for example, developed a method of writing music based off of their collective ad-libbing where one person’s response to another’s input could move the whole piece in a new direction. This could end in either pleasant surprises and destructive impositions, but both ways, it grew into the fuel for many of the band’s songs and increased the authorship of the music to the entire group. Accepting that the artistic decision-making is shared by your team signifies that you can better focus on the choices you’re responsible for. In other words, even though control is limited by collaborating, it can actually be a blessing.

How Declining Record Sales Have Made the Music Business More Flexible

Record sales have endured a steep decline since 1999 because of the changing environment of music distribution. With the growth of digital distribution, record sales have dwindled drastically and today only very few artists can live off their record sales alone. Consider the point that, of all the albums released in 2009, only 2.1 percent sold over 5,000 copies. Furthermore, in 2006, only 35 of the albums released sold more than one million copies within the calendar year. By 2010, the number dropped to ten. Predictably, this circumstance has resulted in most retail music chains, like Tower Records and Virgin Megastores, closing down. It also indicates that the conventional royalty deal – where the record company finances the recording and the artist receives a percentage of the sales – no longer works for most mid-level artists. In the majority of cases, royalties won’t even fully cover a record’s production expenses, so one would have to sell an considerable number of records simply to make a living. Having been the focus of the music industry, records now function simply as the loss leaders that produce sales for more profitable items, such as concert tickets and merchandise. However, there’s an upside to this developing landscape: the music business has grown to be more flexible. It can be seen in the way that musicians are more frequently choosing to work independently of traditional label relationships. Take, for example, Radiohead, who dropped their label EMI to release their 2007 album In Rainbows online. Or consider Madonna, who bid farewell to Warner Bros. to sign a contract with the concert promoter Live Nation. Also, the ease and convenience of home recording and digital distribution makes the DIY route – where everything is self-written, produced and marketed – look appealing to a lot of artists. The traditional method of selling and distributing records has become less feasible since record sales have begun to decline. Luckily, the versatility of today’s music business provides artists with a wealth of alternative possibilities.

The Venue Matters

When it comes to appreciating live music, an important component of the experience is the venue. Sometimes a vibrant music scene can even begin emerging around a specific venue. Take, for instance, New York’s CBGB, which progressed from being a biker bar to the backdrop of a developing musical scene in 1974. Actually, through a couple of uniting factors, a lively music scene can arise from any venue. Firstly, the venue has to offer performers specific options and perks. This indicates that bands should be paid fairly. At CBGB, the scene didn’t take off until the owner was convinced by singer and guitarist Tom Verlaine to allow his band to “play for the door”– i.e., the small admission fee went to the artists. Before that, CBGB had only been a biker bar that didn’t draw a lot of customers in; but, by letting unknown, unsigned bands to get paid to play their own music, the venue made it possible for a scene to surface. Performing musicians should also be permitted to get in for free on their nights off. This way there will always be an audience and the possibilities of the venue turning into a popular hangout will rise. A second factor is the physical design of a venue, which is crucial to its success. CBGB aided the emergence of multiple bands and songs by “being the right size, the right shape and in the right place.” It wasn’t excessively large, giving it an intimate ambiance, and the building had crooked, uneven walls with a looming ceiling that created a remarkably good sound. Moreover, the performers could never truly hide from the audience because there was no backstage area. Instead, they were forced to mingle with the crowd, which is one way that the crowd formed the support for them. Creating a scene is essential. It’s the only way that local musicians and artists can have an outlet for their talents, and all that’s necessary is a venue that follows some basic principles.

The Benefits to Amateurs Making Music 

For a long time, teaching and funding the arts wasn’t directed at fostering creativity amongst the general population, or in other words, “the amateurs.” With the invention of sound recording, music education moved its focus from educating students on how to create music to how they should understand music, with a particular emphasis on specific “superior” types of music. This cultural hierarchy advocates consumption over creation and risks deterring amateurs who desire to compose their own music. In the US, music education has been downsized drastically. The No Child Left Behind program’s stress on test scores made schools in most states decrease their arts programs by more than half. Yet, there’s a high value in amateur music-making because music can serve as both social glue and a self-empowering agent of change. A beneficial byproduct of music-making is the empowering sensation people get when conceiving something and the socialiation that comes with playing in bands. And, furthermore, as an organized system, music can also fight crime and poverty. For instance, musician Carlinhos Brown organized several music and culture centers in previously dangerous neighborhoods in Brazil. He was inspired by his childhood in Candeal, where local kids were urged to sing, join drum groups and create music in various ways to keep them from selling drugs. These initiatives stimulated them, gave them hope and ultimately caused the crime rate to drop. Also consider El Sistema, a music education program that originated in 1975 in a Venezuelan parking garage. Not only has it cultivated numerous high-level musicians over time, but it’s also systematically fought poverty by providing kids from disadvantaged backgrounds with an opportunity to better their situations. Music can transform people’s lives in ways that go beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved. When music becomes a component of a whole community, it can even shift into a moral force. Therefore, amateurs’ creativity should be prioritized to a far greater extent.

Music Beyond Entertainment

Music, it seems, has constantly been a vital element of human life. Some theories maintain that music started with the non-verbal sounds mothers make to their children, while others correlate it to sounds in nature or animal noises. But, while theories about music’s roots differ, all agree that it began at the same time people did. The earliest proof we have of the early man creating music dates back about 45,000 years. That evidence confirms that Neanderthals were playing flutes based on corresponding notes produced by a modern piano’s white keys. Additionally, humans have developed many specialized skills that appear to be linked to music-making. For example, studies show that infants can identify various musical scales, and favor harmonies we think of as consonant or ones that are considered to be “stable.” Infants can also hear relational pitches. This signifies that if an infant comprehends the “Happy Birthday” song, they will recognize it regardless of what note you begin the song with. Even computers don’t have that capability yet. Finally, music has an intense impact on our psychological well-being; many would agree that a life without music is one that’s significantly depreciated. Studies actually reveal that music, more than many of the arts, triggers activity in many sections of the brain. Some people with brain damage can only complete their daily routines with the aid of music. Based on that finding, a group of therapeutic techniques named Melodic Intonation Therapy has been formed. Over time, we have acquired specific skills for enjoying and formulating music. The musical structures and arrangements we appreciate are usually shared despite large cultural variations. Moreover, there’s also mounting evidence that music is beneficial for our psychological well-being. All in all, this seems to confirm that music is, and always has been, a substantial piece of who we are.

In Review: How Music Works Book Summary

The key message in this book: Music is strongly reliant on its context, be it the particular venue where it’s played, the process it’s recorded, or the digital technology applied to create it. But what perpetually remains is music’s significance to us as human beings: it can bring us together and be a self-empowering device. Plus, with modern technology and music business that’s more flexible than ever, there are myriad methods to get music out into the world. Actionable advice: Empower yourself and improve your brain through music-making. You may not be able to play a proper scale, but it can be remarkably empowering to learn to play a musical instrument. Creating music involves both your mind and body and research shows that consistent active participation in music stimulates the growth of many regions of the brain. So get someone to show you a few chords on a guitar and start jamming.