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February 18, 2013

How Music Works

by David Byrne

About a month ago, I finished David Byrne's terrific book about the art, craft, and business of music-making, How Music Works. I'm always particularly interested in how other creators work, especially in fields that have been around a bit longer, and this was a terrific read, particularly the early chapters where he discussed his process with the Talking Heads and in other projects¹.

Byrne begins from a different point than one might expect; he essentially starts with the idea that the act of creation fits a pre-existing context, rather than as some spark of inspiration. He takes us through a musical history beginning with pre-classical music, through Western classical music and then into the twentieth century, focusing on various forms of popular music, and at each step of the way he indicates the music making context -- how and where the music was performed, and therefore what forces worked to make the music what it was. It's a fantastic and studied analysis, and I encourage anyone who thinks about their own creative medium to read it and consider how its thinking might be applied. I certainly had many thoughts about the context of games; where it began, and how it has changed over time, and why, which also gets one thinking about the future and where it might be going. Inspiring reading and thinking.

He goes on to discuss the actual processes he uses in the composition of songs and the construction of concerts -- and I followed up my reading of this book with a viewing of the Stop Making Sense tour DVD out of interest². Byrne's process really interested me -- he described how he and the Talking Heads would come up with a starting point for a song with a series of changes and he'd more or less improvise a scat over the top of it, just stringing together nonsense syllables for whatever "felt right" with the music he was hearing, recording everything with a simple tape recorder to try and capture the best moments. Later, he'd return to the recording and write lyrics to take the place of the nonsense syllables, but tried to use words which had similar phonemes in them. It's a really interesting way to work³, organically finding the sounds that make sense, and then refining those sounds into words through a more considered process. It called to mind the idea of using a game jam to find the kernel of a game design, and returning to it over subsequent months to flesh it out into a fully-formed game.

The construction of the Stop Making Sense tour is really fantastic as well, how Byrne drew on influences from Noh plays to create something really special and fresh in the American concert scene. Having seen it on DVD, it's something quite surprising4 and unlike anything I've ever seen in a concert.

It's a great read and well worth it for creators of any stripe.

Previous "Notable": Fobbit by David Abrams

Next "Notable": Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Intro post to my Notable project

¹The middle chapters tended to deal more with the business side of music making then and now, and the final couple of chapters had to do with the making of a "scene," or the conditions under which new music will flourish. These were interesting in themselves, but my favorite chapters were the early ones.

²More than one person has remarked to me about how this tour was their favorite concert ever. I'm not a frequent concert-goer, and I was young enough in the early 80s that I probably wouldn't have been able to go to this one, but I will say that I really wish I had. The concert video was directed by Jonathan Demme and was pretty fantastic itself.

³It's not, of course, the only way to work. I recently heard an interview with Aimee Mann on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, and she described a process of lyric-writing which shared a lot more with certain kinds of poetry, focusing on meter and attempting to find perfect rhymes. Following on the game analogy from the game above, that would be more like working in an established game genre to further refine it.

4I admit, if I owned that "Big Suit," I'd probably wear it all the time.

Posted by Brett Douville at February 18, 2013 10:40 AM