FROM HIS TIME with Talking Heads to a globetrotting solo career marked by collaborations with nearly every stripe of musician, David Byrne has always been one of popular music's intellectuals. He might be the only person who could title a book How Music Works and get away with it. He's certainly the only one who could make such a weighty topic so readable.
Presented by McSweeney's as a somewhat imposing simulacrum of a textbook—fittingly, perhaps, as portions began as TEDTalks—How Music Works is divided into 10 discrete chapters, each tackling and realizing a different thought to completion. Byrne's autobiography creeps in here and there, charting his experiences as a performing musician and as a recording artist. In the book's weakest section, he examines the CBGB/downtown New York scene of the late '70s, analyzing why it became such a fruitful scene for nascent bands.
But elsewhere, Byrne approaches broader topics in music as a scholar and philosopher, and what makes the book so pleasurable is his ability to maintain a wide-eyed sense of wonder throughout, never adopting a hectoring tone or presuming he's earned the rank of an elite authority. He recognizes music as an inherently democratic art form, with similarities across all cultures (there are some very significant cultural differences as well, which are elucidated). But Byrne remains slightly puzzled—and wholly delighted—by the very peculiar method of human expression that music is: It bears no clear evolutionary benefit and it doesn't feed or clothe or shelter us, but it's an irrefutable part of our neurological makeup.
Byrne also addresses the massive shifts that have occurred as a result of technological advancements. Recordings, from phonograph cylinders to magnetic tape to digital software, have very much altered the way music inhabits our lives—in many good ways, and some decidedly bad ones, too. We listen to music differently now, and Byrne examines this in ways you might not have considered. He diagrams the dramatic collapse of the record industry and the proliferation of enormous personal musical libraries of music, whose miraculous convenience has the unfortunate byproduct of turning us into largely passive consumers. In the book's final, remarkable chapter, Byrne touches on Ptolemy's theory of the music of the spheres and Buddhism's idea of Nâda-Brahman—the sound of creation.
This is all heady stuff, but Byrne's conversational, unambiguous tone makes How Music Works read like a very fun series of lectures from the coolest professor on campus. He's peerlessly articulate and animated, and his enthusiasm spreads to the reader.