Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

David Byrne: How Music Works

In his new book, How Music Works, David Byrne asserts that no kind of music, no matter how cerebral or danceable, “is aimed exclusively at either the body or the head.” And yet, as the leader of Talking Heads, Byrne once trafficked in that duality: the friction between the hips and the brain, an irony at play even in his band’s name. Byrne’s days as a precocious ironicist are mostly in his past, though, and How Music Works traces that transition while setting it against a sweeping backdrop of musical history and philosophy. While retaining a taste of the wry detachment and jittery energy of his best music, he uses the quirk, curiosity, and sentiment of How Music Works to survey the medium he more or less fell into.


Byrne’s role as a self-taught musicologist—getting into music was, in his words, “a very happy accident”—is key to the book’s scattershot brilliance. That said, his framework overtly avoids autobiography. He states in his preface that How Music Works is not meant as a memoir, and he mostly stays true to that, even investing the “My Life In Performance” section with a heady mix of personal reminiscence and probing examinations of the cultural context surrounding his rise to fame and acclaim. It doesn’t always work; his lengthy account of the convoluted thought processes behind his various sartorial choices over the years—including his infamous, kabuki-meets-Ward Cleaver suit from the game-changing Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense—get a bit self-absorbed. But there are subtler Easter eggs for Heads fans sprinkled throughout Byrne’s non-memoir. When he speaks of the way disco evolved to fill a specific set of social, technological, and acoustic needs in the ’70, it’s impossible not hear the lyrics to “Life During Wartime” echoing in the background.

When Byrne lets his attention wander outside himself, though, he’s truly dazzling, covering a staggering scope of topics. Bing Crosby is heralded as a major pioneer of 20th-century musical technology, both as a musician and a broadcast pioneer—and Byrne backs up the claim. He tackles the elusive issue of authenticity in music head-on, while keeping it tantalizingly open for speculation. He explores epistemology—especially in regard to the perception of recorded music—along with everything from global politics to the microcosm of CBGB, the legendary punk dive where Talking Heads got its start. And he does so with equal parts agility and authority, whimsy and wisdom. The driest section dwells on the socioeconomic function of the music industry, although he does manage to keep it as lively and relevant as possible. But even the most potentially pedantic subject winds up getting the Byrne twist. Summing up a rich, dizzying overview of Pythagoras’ theoretical harmony of the spheres with a punchline—“You might say the universe plays the blues”—might come across as pithy in lesser hands, but in his, it’s actually profound.

Byrne’s knack for paradox and passion carries his erratic narrative. Of his early, pre-Talking Heads days—as a busker dressed as an “Old World immigrant” and singing songs like “96 Tears”—he says he “realized then that it was possible to mix ironic humor with sincerity in performance. Seeming opposites could coexist. Keeping these two in balance was a bit of a tightrope act, but it could be done.” Later, he speaks of a major turning point in his life, both professionally and spiritually: the day he realized performing wasn’t just a show of conceptual deftness, but a source of pure, personal joy. To How Music Works’ credit, that same joy—of singing and playing, of thinking and dancing, of listening and wondering—renders almost every page a song.