Derek Sivers

How Music Works - by David Byrne

How Music Works - by David Byrne

ISBN: 1936365537
Date read: 2018-01-30
How strongly I recommend it: 5/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Some interesting historical perspectives I hadn't thought of, like how the venue's reverberation changed composition. Highlight for me was the Byrne/Eno creative thoughts on their approach to writing and recording music, which I've always loved.

my notes

The same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning. Depending on where you hear it - in a concert hall or on the street - or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting, or you could find yourself dancing to it.

How music works is determined by what surrounds it, where you hear it and when you hear it. How it’s performed, how it’s sold and distributed, how it’s recorded, who performs it, whom you hear it with, and, of course, finally, what it sounds like.

We work backward, creating work that fits the venue available to us.
The space, the platform, and the software “makes” the art.
Gothic cathedrals: reverberation time in those spaces is very long - more than four seconds. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance. What sounds best in this kind of space, is modal in structure - often using very long notes.

The origin of jazz solos and improvisations was a pragmatic way of solving a problem that had emerged: the “written” melody would run out while the musicians were playing, and in order to keep a popular section continuing longer for the dancers who wanted to keep moving, the players would jam over those chord changes while maintaining the same groove.

Around 1900, classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat, and chat during a performance.
They made new symphony halls and opera houses. (I guess it was assumed that the lower classes were inherently noisy.)
This exclusionary policy affected the music being written, too - since no one was talking, eating, or dancing anymore, the music could have extreme dynamics.
Composers knew that every detail would be heard, so very quiet passages could now be written.

Separating the body from the head seems to have been an intended consequence - for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it.
The regions below the neck are socially and morally suspect.

Club music emerged out of dance clubs in the same way that jazz did - by extending sections of the music so the dancers could show off and improvise.

Birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment.
In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal within a narrow frequency works best - the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow. Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.

Life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical.

I was incredibly shy.
Making my art in public was a way of reaching out and communicating when ordinary chitchat was not comfortable for me.

The most subversive thing was to look totally normal.
To look like a rebel was to pigeonhole yourself in advance as someone who spoke only to other rebels.

Pop music shows resemble both Western and Eastern classical theater: the audience knows the story already.
The director’s interpretation holds a mirror up to the oft-told tale in a way that allows us so see it in a new light.
People want to see something familiar from a new angle.

Let the audience know you’re going to do something special before you do it.
Tip them off and draw their attention in a way that isn’t obvious.
Where’s the surprise if you let the audience in on what’s about to happen?
Well, odds are, if you don’t alert them, half the audience will miss it.

We listen more closely when we know we only have one chance, one fleeting opportunity to grasp something.
Imagine that you could only experience a book by going to a reading, or by reading the text off a screen that displayed it only briefly before disappearing.
I suspect that if that were the way we received literature, then writers (and readers) would work harder to hold our attention.
They would avoid getting too complicated, and they would strive mightily to create a memorable experience.

Music did get texturally more complex when it started being recorded.

In a live situation, the ear can psychoacoustically zoom in on a sound or isolate a section of players and pick out a phrase or melody - the way we can pick out a conversation at a noisy dinner table if we can see the person talking.
To just stick a mic up and expect it to capture what we have experienced, wasn’t going to happen.
They would move the mics around during the recordings - exaggerating dynamics and shifting perspectives.

Buffalo Bill and Geronimo and later Bob Dylan: taking on the persona of an innocent yet perceptive country boy.

Hearing a new and strange piece of music for the first time often opens a door that you didn’t even know was there.

Music tells us how other people view the world in a non-descriptive way. Music embodies the way those people think and feel.

The electric guitars were breaking free of history.

We made a series of recordings based on an imaginary culture. “Ethnic Forgeries” : create our own “field recordings” - a musical documentation of an imaginary culture.
Like a Borges or Calvino story, but this would be a mystery in musical form.
Detailed liner notes explaining the way music functioned in that culture and how it was produced there.

We’d try to pretend that we didn’t necessarily already know how a guitar or piano was meant to be played, and we would reject some approaches if they seemed too informed by our own past experience.

It is the music and the lyrics that trigger the emotions within us, rather than the other way around.

Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener.

Think of the artist as someone who is adept at making devices that tap into our shared psychological make-up and that trigger the deeply moving parts we have in common.

In remote collaborations, leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you possibly can.
You work with what you’re given, and don’t try to imagine it as something other than what it is.
That train had already left the station, and my job was to see where it wanted to go.
This restriction on creative freedom turns out, as usual, to be a great blessing.

The reason I use modes and chords that are easy to follow and harmonize with: I want music to be inviting, to offer the listener a place inside it.

I would fill lots of pages with non-sequitors.
Then phrases that would hint at the beginning of an actual subject often seemed to want to emerge.
I would look for words that fit pre-existing melodic fragments.
When some phrases, even if collected almost at random, begin to resonate together and appear to be talking about the same thing, it’s tempting to claim they have a life of their own.
The lyrics may have begun as gibberish, but often, though not always, a “story” in the broadest sense emerges. Emergent storytelling, one might say.

Words imply that the music is about what the words say, literally, and nothing more.
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.

I begin by improvising a melody over the music. I do this by singing nonsense syllables, but with weirdly inappropriate passion, given that I’m not saying anything.
Once I have a wordless melody I’ll begin to transcribe that gibberish as if it were real words. I’ll listen carefully to the meaningless vowels and consonants on the recording, and I’ll try to understand what that guy (me), emoting so forcefully but inscrutibly, is actually saying.
If a melodic phrase of gibberish ends on a high ooh sound, then I’ll transcribe that, and in selecting actual words, I’ll try to choose one that ends in that syllable.

If my conscious mind might be thinking too much - anything - driving, jogging, swimming, cooking, cycling - that occupies part of the conscious mind and distracts it, works.