Friday, February 23, 2018

How Music Works

My wife got me a most thoughtful christmas present: "How Music Works", by David Byrne, 2012, 2017, 381 pages. I knew of the book and had thought about reading it, my wife made the decision for me.

It was a great read, touching on many topics relating to music, and Byrne definitely provides some memorable phrases and inspiring ideas. It's good enough that I decided early on to review it chapter by chapter and include quotations. As my wife gave me a trade paperback version of the book, this involved dogearing, highlighting, and touch-typing in quotations. [I will also include some of my own musical experience.]

Chapter 1 is titled "Creation in Reverse". Byrne talks about the interplay between music and the venue where it is performed. The bigger the room, the more reverb. Outdoors generally has no reverb, and is best suited to percussion, which dominated African music.

[From my experience, playing indoors you get told to turn down, playing outdoors you get told to turn up. My 15 watt Fender Blues Jr tube amp is unusable for outdoor gigs. My 50 watt Marshall solid state amp used indoor has been set on 3-4, outdoors 6-7 (out of 10).]

We are introduced to CBGB, the club in Manhattan where The Talking Heads, Blondie, and others got their starts.

Chapter 2 is titled "My Life in Performance". Byrne recounts his musical life story. He tried a lot of different approaches and concepts in creating music.

I thought this was a great story of a technique used to evaluate dancers for a tour Byrne was preparing for. From these 4 rules, 50 dancers were moving in unison in under 4 minutes:

  1. Improvise moving to the music and come with an 8-count phrase.
  2. When you find a phrase you like, loop (repeat) it.
  3. When you see someone else with a stronger phrase, copy it.
  4. When everyone is doing the same phrase, the exercise is over.

Chapter 3 is titled "Technology Shapes Music", subtitled "Part One: Analog". The history of analog recording devices is recounted. Ha, the 1st Edison recorders had such poor quality that they were mostly used for spoken word recordings.

The New York Times predicted that we might collect speeches
In recording music, the early analog media required the performers to modify how they would do things to fit the requirements of the media.
Our understanding of certain kinds of music, based on recordings anyway, is completely inaccurate.
This is interesting. The vibrato that is de rigueur for classical music came about to hide the off-key notes that recordings made painfully obvious?
Katz contends that before the advent of recording, vibrato added to a note was considered kitschy, tacky, and was universally frowned upon ...
Byrne also talks about a version of Wagner's Parsifal directed by Hans-J├╝rgen Syberberg (1982) that seemed like it might be worth a look. It appears to be on Vimeo, but it is 4:15 long.

The 1st and last analog recording and playback devices - the Edison cylinder and the cassette tape - allowed the end user to record as well as listen. Generally, the music producers, the record companies, sold more product if they were the only source of content - so early on user recording options were phased out.

The cassette tape made possible mixtapes. Everyone exchanged these with their friends.

The mixtape was your friend, your psychiatrist, and your solace.

Mixtapes were a form of potlatch - the Native American custom by which a gift given requires that a reciprocal gift be received in the future.

[I have made only 2 mixtapes in my life - my favorite songs by Fats Waller, and my favorite songs by Django Reinhardt, at the request of a guitarist friend of mine. Those aren't really mixtapes. I would not know where to begin to create a small selection of the music in my collection. Even given a theme, there's just so much good stuff. My kids have given me great mixtapes. Maybe it's a skill I should work on. I'm pretty good at coming up with set lists for bands I've played in, that seems similar, I wonder why I find the creation of a mixtape off-putting.]

Byrne ends the chapter discussing how the dissemination of music creates cyclic homogenization.

Pop music can be thrown off its axis by some previously unknown and talented rapper from the projects. And then the homogenization process begins again.


Music eats its young and gives birth to a new hybrid creature.

Chapter 4 is titled "Technology Shapes Music", subtitled "Part Two: Digital". Hmmm, CDs were the 1st digital medium, followed by mp3s. Ha ha, interesting, in the early days of digital recordings, a doctor treating psychotics with music found that "When his test subjects are played digital music, they get agitated and twitchy."

Byrne talks about digital composition, including MIDI. Yay, there is hope for us human musicians!

But some instruments elude capture. Guitars aren't easily quantifiable in this way, nor are wind, brass, or most bowed string instruments. So far, the nuances of those instruments have been just too tricky to capture.
Hmmm, is this a form of a race to the bottom? A local minimum hiding a global minimum?
As soon as technology makes one thing easier, it leaves a host of alternatives in the dust.

Chapter 5 is titled "Infinite Choice: The Power of Curation". I was excited to see the title of this chapter - I love curating my music and my books! Here is the 1st line of the chapter:

Endless choice is no choice.
A simple statement like this, you want to say, "that's so obvious, it must be true". But I'm not sure this statement is true, it seems more like something that is said for effect.

In the very next sentence, Byrne mentions that, at least in music, we have achieved post-scarcity utopia! Yay!

In an age of glut, when huge quantities of music are available, the issue for consumers is no longer access but how one finds music that is of interest.
This is an interesting point. It reminds me of the t-shirt that my oldest daughter gave me at one point: "I listen to bands that don't exist yet".
We want the illusion of free will, that some aspect of what we listen to is our choice.
Byrne posits
four kinds of music discovery and curation: recommendation by experts, by the music itself, by social and cultural forces (often managed by algorithms), and by narrative and context.
Talking about the music selection algorithms, Byrne returns to the "free will" concepts:
We're more predictable than we admit, which is why these things work, but the ecstasy in joining the collective pulls against the urge to feel special.
As my t-shirt says, we "feel special" when we discover the cool new band 1st and then the collective follows us.

Hmmm, I thought that the Music Genome Project which powers Pandora had an academic component, apparently not.

[From my personal experience, in the early years of Amazon, I ordered a Counting Crows album. Amazon then said, "If you like Counting Crows, you should check out The Band". I'm like, WTF!, The Band is possibly my favorite band of all time! But, look at the details of the 2 bands: southern rock, mostly guitar based but with mandolin and squeeze box. Counting Crows is indeed a child of The Band, 25 years later.

The 1st time I used Pandora, I was completely blown away. I picked an artist, it gave me an outstanding selection of similar music. I'm asking myself, "Why are you spending so much time curating your music when this is so good?". Answer is, I enjoy curation.]

Chapter 6 is titled "In the Recording Studio". Early on, total emphasis on separating instruments to make things easy for the sound engineer doing the mixing. I just noticed 1 of the sections is titled "Modular Music" - in music as in software, anytime you are creating composite structures, modularity of your components is key. In software, it is key because it maximizes maintainability. In music, seems more like, it makes the sound engineer's job easier.

Here's an interesting anecdote about what is probably my favorite Talking Heads' song: "Once In A Lifetime":

One or two fragments that I used - the repetition of the phrase "You may find yourself", for example - were straight lifts from the radio preacher
A great video too, let's include it here.

Byrne talks about "Paris, An African City" and "New York, The Secret Latin City" as musical influences.

The vaguely melancholy melodies over the syncopated grooves - typical of Latin music - was attractive as an emotionally liberating combination.
This is really interesting - who knew?
Much Latin music has a framework referred to as the clave (the key), which sometimes isn't even played or audibly articulated by any one instrument. (What a beautiful concept that is: the most important part is invisible!) The clave divides the measures into a three-beat and a two-beat pattern - for rockers it's like a Bo Diddley beat, or the Buddy Holly song "Not Fade Away." (Rock and roll didn't just come from country and blues mixing; there was Latin flavor in there too!) All the other parts, even the horns and the vocals, acknowledge the clave pattern and play with awareness of it, even if it isn't always audible.
So these songs are actually not particularly 4/4 time, they are more like 8/4 time.

Byrne talks about recording moving from the studio to the home, but he notes

The mixing, however. was still done in a "real" studio. A fresh set of ears at that stage can be useful, as one tends to fall in love with parts for reasons no one else can actually hear.

Chapter 7 is titled "Collaborations". Ha ha, here's the 1st paragraph:

The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. This wasn't intended as a compliment - though, to be honest, it's not that far from the truth. Contrary to their insinuation, I am fairly picky about who I collaborate with, but I am also willing to work with people you might not expect me to. I'll risk disaster because the creative rewards of a successful collaboration are great. I've been doing it all my life.
[I greatly enjoyed his recent collaboration with St. Vincent (Annie Clark), of whom I am also a fan. The background was mostly horns, arranged by Lexington native and Dunbar graduate Kelly Pratt, a friend of my oldest daughter the graphic designer.]

I like Byrne's take on improvisation.

So by improvisation I don't mean long meandering guitar solos. Quite the opposite. Ours were more about hunting and pecking with the aim of "finding" short, sonic, modular pieces.
I found this next paragraph very insightful, and maybe inspirational as well. I've always told people that lots of software developers are also musicians because both are about patterns.
If music can be regarded as an organizing principle - and in this case one that places equal weight on melody, rhythm, texture, and harmony - then we start to see metaphors everywhere we look. All kinds of natural phenomena are "musical." And I don't mean they make sounds, but rather that they organize themselves, and patterns become evident. Forms and themes arise, express themselves, repeat, mutate, and then become submerged again. The daily street ballet that Jan Jacobs wrote about, and the hustle and bustle of an outdoor market, are each a kind of music. Stars, bugs, running water, the chaotic tangle of vegetation. Musicians playing together find a kind of symbiotic relationship between one another and an interplay between their parts, so that the interlocking and interweaving create a sonic fabric.
Byrne posits a heuristic for remote collaboration that I think applies to all collaboration. It certainly applied to working on a team of software developers.
The unwritten rule in these remote collaborations is, for me, "Leave the other person's stuff alone as much as you possibly can."
This was an odd piece of arcana - regarding Carmen Miranda's headdresses?!?!?
There was some deeply profound shit secreted in those headdresses, and Veloso alluded to it obliquely in his lyrics.
Another insightful and maybe inspirational passage from Byrne.
... I was also reading a book by Rebecca Solnit called A Paradise Built in Hell, about the almost utopian social transformations that sometimes emerge out of disasters and revolutions - citizens spontaneously and selflessly helping one another after traumatic events ... All these events have in common a magical and all too brief moment when class and other social differences vanish, and a common humanity becomes evident. These moments often last only a few days, but they have a profound and lasting impact on the participants, who witness a door cracked open a little to reveal a better world, one whose existence they never forget.
The final section of this chapter is titled "Emergent Storytelling". It contains a really interesting algorithm for writing song lyrics. I have left this page dogeared, I might have to give this a try.

Chapter 8 is titled "Business and Finance". It is subtitled "Distribution & Survival Options for Musical Artists". Byrne gives quite a detailed analysis of how one made and now makes a living in the music industry, and the role played by record companies. He also provides actual $$$ figures for some of his projects.

He enumerates the changes which have been brought about by modern digital technology. The 1st 2 are reminiscent of "The Zero Marginal Cost Society", which I blogged a little over a year ago.

  1. Recording costs began to approach zero
  2. Manufacturing and distribution costs are approaching zero
  3. Artists no longer get big advances
  4. Performing is now viewed as a source of income
He then delineates "Six Distribution Models With Different Levels Of Artist Control", ranked from least to most artist control. He discusses each model in depth.
  1. The 360• Deal
  2. Standard Royalty Deal
  3. License Deal
  4. Profit-Share Deal
  5. P & D (or M & D) Deal - production & distribution, or manufacturing & distribution
  6. Self-Distribution

Chapter 9 is titled "How to Make a Scene". This is really kind of different. He goes back to the club where Talking Heads got their start, CBGB in the East Village, and attempts to identify what it was that made this place successful. He defines 8 rules:

  1. There must be a venue that is of appropriate size and location in which to present new material
  2. The artists should be allowed to play their own material
  3. Performing musicians must get in for free on their off nights (and maybe get free beer too)
  4. There must be a sense of alienation from the prevailing music scene
  5. Rent must be low - and it just stay low
  6. Bands must be paid fairly
  7. Social transparency must be encouraged
  8. It must be possible to ignore the band when necessary
Byrne provides sketches of CBGB - it is tiny! [I don't think I've ever played in a place this small - maybe Green Lantern before it acquired the space next door.]

Very interesting stuff. [#8 definitely disagrees with at least 1 open mic I've played at that insisted on silence during performances.]

#3 is interesting in that it implies that there is a cover charge for admission. [There is now a saxophonist/sound man in Lexington who moved down from Brooklyn a few years ago. He was running a jazz jam and charging a $5 cover, including on the jammers. When questioned on it, he said, "Hell, in Brooklyn, it would be a $5 cover and a 2 drink minimum". Ha ha, he was reminded that this wasn't Brooklyn (hipster capital of the universe).] I wonder how much these rules apply to smaller cities?

Chapter 10 is titled "Amateurs!". [Although I consider myself a semi-pro musician (I occasionally get paid), I think that I am included in this chapter.] I think this chapter can be summarized as Byrne contrasting high culture (classical music, opera, ballet) vs low culture (pop music, dance, etc) - or 1% culture vs "the rest of us" culture.

He also addresses again the desire of Capitalism for us to be music consumers instead of music producers. He addresses the question of, is there something ineffable, magic, inexplicable in music? This reminds me of lazy evolutionary psychologists who make this contention about the human mind. And he addresses Great Man Theory as it applies to music - and IP nazis. A wide reaching and evolutionarily sound chapter, I think!

He starts by returning to the theme of Chapter 1 - that music is part of its environment.

The arts don't exist in a vacuum. And, of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more that it is a thing - it is yoked to where you heard it, how much you paid for it, and who else was there.
He doesn't particularly think it's a "vast conspiracy", but he clearly unhappy with our culture's approach to music.
The act of making music, clothes, art, or even food has a very different and possibly more beneficial effect on us than simply consuming those things. And yet for a very long time, the attitude of the state toward teaching and funding the arts has been in direct opposition to fostering creativity among the general population. It can often seem that those in power don't want us to enjoy making things for ourselves - they'd prefer to establish a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts and encourages consumption rather than creation. ... Capitalism tends toward the creation of passive consumers, and in many ways this tendency is counterproductive.
Here is the 1st mention of Great Man Theory.
In the modern age, though, people have come to feel that art and music are the product of individual effort rather than something that emerges from a community. The meme of the solitary genius is powerful, and it has affected the way we think about how our culture came into being.
Here is the 1st IP mention. Cory Doctorow would definitely be onboard.
Much technology in contemporary culture, in which creative tinkering by non-professionals has been crippled by the efforts of computer and software companies, and by the enforcers and lobbyists behind copyright and intellectual-property laws, displays this same tendency. Amateur music makers have had to take a backseat. So much for the market catering to the will of the people!
I did not know that in 1906 John Phillip Sousa wrote an essay titled "The Menace of Mechanical Music". He was really afraid amateur music would disappear completely! This was another interesting thought from Sousa, agreeing with Byrne's "music + environment" ideas.
Sousa is saying that the gaps between performances might in some ways be just as important - socially, at least - as the performances themselves.
On high art vs low art, Byrne quotes John Carey, an English literary critic, who calls out veneration of high art as class-based.
Meanings ... are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them. High art is that which appeals to the minority whose social rank places them above the struggle for mere survival.


One is saying, "What I feel is more valuable than what you feel." In assuming that high art makes life worth living, there is an inherent arrogance toward the mass of people who don't partake of such forms ... and an assumption that their lives are not worth as much, not as full. The religion of art makes people worse - because it encourages contempt for those considered inartistic.

Ha ha, I liked the story about an artist showing western masterpieces to folks in rural Thailand. They didn't get much out of it. "the great Western masterpieces simply are not the transformative icons they are considered to be back home."

Supporting high art has also been a way for the nouveau rich or those with questionable sources of income to try to legitimize themselves socially. Take, for instance, the Koch brothers paying to help remodel the Lincoln Center in NYC.

Someone who supports "good" music must be a good person, too. (I have no idea why the Mafia dons and the narco-gangsters haven't wised up to this idea. Wouldn't you love to see the Joey Bananas opera hall?)
Interesting, Byrne mentions the Japanese tea ceremony as a flavor of amateur art.
utilitarian objects and activities, made and performed with integrity, consciously and mindfully, could be art.
There is a very interesting story about a music education program in a favela outside Rio de Janeiro helping to transform young men's lives, keeping them out of gangs.
Music is indeed a moral force, but mostly when it is part of the warp and woof of an entire community.


From the minute a child is taught how to play an instrument, he is no longer poor. He becomes a child in progress, heading for a professional level, who'll later become a citizen.

Also referenced is an art program in UK prisons.
He claims that the remedy for violence is an agency that will defeat feelings of impotence. Historically, religion has successfully done this, and the rise of fundamentalism might be viewed as a reaction to incresing feelings of alienation and inconsequentiality around the world. Making music might act as a antidote to those feelings too, as those cultural and music centers in the Brazilian favelas attest. In those UK prisons, the quality of the work is beside the point, as it was in Brazil. And unlike religion, no one has ever gone to war over music.
Not sure about that last statement. What about the East Coast vs the West Coast rappers?

Byrne finishes the chapter again touting creation over consumption.

In my opinion, though, it's more important that someone learn to make music, draw, photograph, write, or create in any form, regardless of the quality, than it is for them to understand and appreciate Picasso, Warhol, or Bill Shakespeare - to say nothing of opera as it is today.

Chapter 11, the last, is titled "Harmonia Mundi".

"You are the music, while the music lasts."
- T. S. Eliot

So far, we've covered how music is distributed, how it's affected by architecture, and a lot more, but who do we need music? Does it even matter? Where did it come from?

In this chapter, Byrne recounts some of the history of thinking about music, and provides some information on how it works in our brains. We learn about frequency and harmonics, Pythagoras, the Music of the Spheres. Ha ha, Bode's Law, which predicts the spacing of the planets, "gives a series of orbital ratios, which are mathematically identical to the common intervals in musical theory. They're variations on what we call the [C]7th chord, C, E, G, B flat". This leads Byrne to quip
You might say the universe plays the blues.
[I personally prefer 9th chords over 7ths for the blues.]

The 2 sections "Biology and the Neurological Basis for Music" and "Music and Emotion" did not do much for me, as with books I have read on these subjects. I will stick with my Darwin meme.

Ha ha, talking about all the places music is included in our lives, Byrne says he wants to hear "toilet-training songs" - he must not have seen Daniel Tiger.

I was surprised by this statement, which I have said many times.

moving liturgical music away from its original Latin - a language almost no one understands anymore - diminishes some of its power and mystery. The Church inevitably loses some of its deep cosmic power when the hymns are written in languages everyone speaks.
Byrne discusses a proposal by Marshall McLuhan
that after the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, we shifted from an acoustic culture to a visual one. He said that in acoustic culture, the world, like sound, is all around you, and comes at you from all directions at once. It is multilayered and non-hierarchical; it has no center or focal point. Visual culture has perspective - a vanishing point, a direction. In visual culture an image is in one very specific fixed spot; it's in front of you. It isn't everywhere at once.
That's interesting, some psychoarcheology, reminiscent of TOOCITBOTBM. But I doubt the relative distribution of the 11 Mbps of the human sensorium (more here), has changed from 10Mbps vision, .5Mpbs hearing, .5Mbps everything else. So at what layer in the human mind did this change occur?

This was interesting, on Muzak and background music.

The dynamics (the changes in volume level), and even the higher and lower pitches, were ironed out. It seemed as if Muzak had sucked the soul out of the songs, but in fact they had created something entirely new, something close to what Satie imagined: furniture music, music that was clearly a useful and (to their subscribers) functional part of the environment, there to induce calm and tranquility in their shops and offices.


The concept of a musical soporific doesn't work across the board, though. Not every activity is improved by adding a soundtrack. I can't listen to music while I write this, though I have friends who have music playing constantly in their studios while they paint, do Photoshop work, or design web pages. But my attention is always drawn to music.

[I don't listen to music in the mornings - I like quiet in the morning, and I particularly dislike the sound of human voices in the morning. I turn on music when I start making lunch and leave it on until after supper. I particularly like music on while I am cooking - definitely a soundtrack. I turn it off if I am playing music. I have often said that I think my CPU runs a bit hot and that the music acts as a null job, soaking up some of the excess cycles.]

Getting towards the end, Byrne ponders:

If music is inherent in all things and places, then why not let music play itself?
Nice! The last section of the book is titled "Cheesecake", after the description of music as "auditory cheesecake" by one of my favorite writers, Steven Pinker (most recently blogged here), with whom Byrne appeared onstage during a book tour.
Pinker mused in an email to me as we were planning our conversation, "I wonder whether music might be innate, not as a self-contained mental organ but rather as a consequence of the way that language, rhythm, emotion, and acoustic analysis are packed into the brain."
An evolutionary spandrel, as Byrne had discussed earlier.

Here's 2 final pretty thoughts about music.

When we move, perform, or play music in unison, we lose ourselves in a way that is psychologically pleasureable.
[Or, as my youngest daughter said after the 1st time she sang with a full band at a jam, "Dad, playing in a band is really fun, isn't it?"]


we don't dance because we're human as much as we are human because we dance.

Again, a great read, so many different views of and concepts relating to music. Definitely check it out.

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