How Music Works is David Byrne’s remarkable and buoyant celebration of a subject he’s spent a lifetime thinking about. He explains how profoundly music is shaped by its time and place, and how the advent of recording technology forever changed our relationship to playing, performing, and listening to music. Acting as historian and anthropologist, raconteur and social scientist, he searches for patterns—and tells us how they have affected his own work over the years with Talking Heads and his many collaborators. Touching on the joy, physics, and the business of making music, he also shows how it is inextricably linked to its cultural and physical context. His range is panoptic, taking us from La Scala to African villages, from his teenage reel-to-reel recordings to his latest work in a home music studio. How Music Works is a brainy, irresistible adventure and an impassioned argument about music’s liberating, life-affirming power.

Today we’re featuring an excerpt from the first chapter of the book. To pre-order How Music Works, please visit our store.

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Chapter One

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually backward from conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins scribbling furiously. The rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing song. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there) doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process—form being tailored to fit a given context—is largely unconscious, instinctive. We mostly don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story—“something to get off my chest”—still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be—thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue that is available to us. That holds true for the other arts as well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software “makes” the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more venues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of the same. After a while the form of the work that predominates in these spaces is taken for granted—of course we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.

In the photo below you can see the room at CBGB where some of the music I wrote was first heard.

Try to ignore the lovely décor and think of the size and shape of the space.

Next to that is a band performing.

The sound in that club was remarkably good—the amount of crap scattered everywhere, the furniture, the bar, the crooked uneven walls and looming ceiling made for both great sound absorption and uneven acoustic reflections—qualities one might spend a fortune to recreate in a recording studio. Well, these qualities were great for this particular music. Because of the lack of reverberation one could be fairly certain, for example, that details of one’s music would be heard—and given the size of the place, intimate gestures and expression would be seen and appreciated as well, at least from the waist up.

Whatever went on below the waist was generally invisible, obscured by the half-standing, half-sitting audience. Most of the audience would have had no idea that the guy in the that photo was rolling around on the stage—he would have simply disappeared from view.

This New York club was initially meant to be a bluegrass and country venue—like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. The singer George Jones knew the number of steps from the stage door of the Grand Ole Opry to the back door of Tootsie’s—37. Charlie Pride gave Tootsie Bess a hatpin to use on rowdy customers.

Below is a photo of some performers at Tootsies.

Physically the two clubs are almost identical. The audience behavior was pretty much the same in both places too.

The musical differences between the two venues are less significant than one might think—structurally, the music emanating from them was pretty much identical, even though once upon a time a country music audience at Tootsies would have hated punk rock and vice versa. When Talking Heads first played in Nashville, the announcer declaimed, “Punk rock comes to Nashville! For the first, and probably the last time!”

Both of these places are bars, where people drink, make new friends, shout and fall down, so the performers had to play loud enough to be heard above that—and so it was, and is. (FYI: the volume in Tootsie’s is much louder than it usually was in CBGB.)

Looking at this scant evidence, I asked myself, to what extent was I writing music specifically, and maybe unconsciously, to fit these places? (I didn’t know about Tootsie’s when I began to write songs.) So I did a little digging to see if other types of music might have also been written to fit their acoustic contexts.


Percussive music carries well outdoors, where people might be both dancing and milling about. The extremely intricate and layered rhythms that are typical of this music don’t all get sonically mashed together as they would in, say, a school gymnasium. Who would invent, play or perservere with such rhythms if they sounded terrible? No one. Not for a minute. This music doesn’t need amplification either—though that did come along later.

The North American musicologist Alan Lomax in his book Folk Song Style and Culture argued that the structure of this music and others of its type—essentially leaderless ensembles—emanates from and mirrors egalitarian societies, but that’s a whole other level of context.1 I love his theory that music and dance styles are metaphors for the social and sexual mores of the societies they emerge from, but that’s not the story I aim to focus on in this book.

Some say that the instruments being played in the photo [above] all derived from easily available local materials, and therefore it was convenience (with a sly implication of unsophistication) that determined the nature of the music. This assessment implies that these instruments and this music were the best this culture could do given the circumstances. But I would argue that the instruments were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored, and played to best suit the physical, acoustic, and social situation. The music fits the place where it is heard, sonically and structurally, both perfectly and brilliantly. It is absolutely ideally suited for this situation—the music, a living thing, evolved to fit the available niche.

That same music would turn into sonic mush in a cathedral. Western music in the Middle Ages was performed in these stone-walled gothic cathedrals, and in architecturally similar monasteries and cloisters. The reverberation times in those spaces is very long—more than four seconds in most cases—so a note sung a few seconds ago hangs in the air and becomes part of the present sonic landscape. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed—a real sonic pileup. So what evolved, what sounds best in this kind of space, is modal in structure—often using very long notes. Slowly evolving melodies that eschew key changes work beautifully and reinforce the otherworldly ambience. Not only does this kind of music work well acoustically, it helps establish what we have come to think of as a spiritual aura. Africans, whose spiritual music is often rhythmically complex, may not associate the music that originates in these spaces with spirituality; they may simply hear it as being blurry and indistinct. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, however, thought that the temple and cathedral are attractive because they spatially and acoustically recreate the cave, where many early men first expressed their spiritual side. Or at least that’s where we think they primarily expressed these feelings, as almost all other traces of such activities have disappeared.

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically “simple” (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. I’d argue that in this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to music, and that music is “better” now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t “improve.”

Bach did a lot of his playing and writing in the early 1700’s in a church that was smaller than a gothic cathedral. As you can imagine, there was already an organ there, and the sound was reverberant, though not as much as in the giant gothic cathedrals.

The music Bach wrote for such spaces sounded good in there—the space made the single instrument—the pipe organ—sound larger, and it also had the nice effect of softening any mistakes as he doodled up and down the scales, as was his wont. Modulating into different keys in the innovative way he did was risky business in these venues. Previously, composers for these rooms stayed in the same key, so they could be all washy and droney, and if the room sounded like an empty swimming pool, then it posed no problem.

I recently went to a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn in a hall that was almost identical to the church pictured on the previous page. The brass bands were playing in the middle of the floor, and folks were dancing in circles around them. The sound was pretty reverberant—not ideal for the complicated rhythms of Balkan music, but then again, that music didn’t develop in those reverberant rooms.

In the late 1700s, Mozart would perform his compositions at events in his patrons’ palaces in grand, but not gigantic rooms.

At least initially, he didn’t write expecting his music to be heard in symphony halls, which is where they’re often performed today, but rather in these smaller, more intimate venues. Rooms like these would be filled with people whose bodies and elaborate dress would deaden the sound, and that, combined with the frilly décor and the modest size of the room (when compared to cathedrals and even ordinary churches) meant that his similarly frilly music could be heard clearly in all its intricate detail.

People could dance to it too. My guess is that in order to be heard above the dancing, clomping feet and gossiping, one might have had to figure out how to make the music louder, and the only way to do this was to increase the size of the orchestra, which is what happened.

Meanwhile, some folks around that same time were going to hear operas. La Scala was built in 1776; the original orchestra section was comprised of a series of booths or stalls, rather than the rows of seats that exist now.

People would eat, drink, talk, and socialize during the performances—audience behavior, a big part of music’s context, was very different back then. Back in the day, people would socialize and holler out to one another during the performances. They’d holler to the stage too, for encores of the popular arias. If they liked a tune, they wanted to hear it again—now! The vibe was more like CBGB than your typical contemporary opera house.

La Scala and other opera venues of the time were also fairly compact—more so than the big opera houses that now dominate much of Europe and the United States. The depth of La Scala and many other opera houses of that period is maybe like the Highline Ballroom or Irving Plaza in New York, but La Scala is taller, with a larger stage. The sound in these opera houses is pretty tight too (unlike today’s larger halls). I’ve performed in some of these old opera venues, and if you don’t crank the volume too high, it works surprisingly well for certain kinds of contemporary pop music.

Take a look at Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner had built for his own music in the 1870s.

You can see it’s not that huge. Not very much bigger than La Scala. Wagner had the gumption to demand that this venue be built to better accommodate the music he imagined—which didn’t mean there was much more seating, as a practical-minded entrepeneur might insist on today. It was the orchestral accommodations themselves that were enlarged. He needed larger orchestras to conjure the requisite bombast. He had new and larger brass instruments created too, and he also called for a larger bass section to create big orchestral effects.

Wagner in some ways doesn’t fit my model—his imagination and ego seemed to be larger than the existing venues, so he was the exception who didn’t accommodate. Granted, he was mainly pushing the boundaries of pre-existing opera architecture, not inventing something from scratch. Once he built this place, he more or less wrote for it and its particular acoustic qualities.

As time passed, symphonic music came to be performed in larger and larger halls. That musical format, originally conceived for rooms in palaces and the more modest-sized opera halls, was now somewhat unfairly being asked to accommodate more reverberant spaces. Subsequent classical composers therefore wrote music for those new halls, with their new sound, and it was music that emphasized texture, and sometimes employed audio shock and awe in order to reach the back row that was now farther away. They needed to adapt, and adapt they did.

The music of Mahler and other later symphonic composers works well in spaces like Carnegie Hall.

Groove music, percussive music featuring drums—like what I do, for example—has a very hard time here. I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play that music there again. I realized that sometimes the most prestigious place doesn’t always work out best for your music. This acoustic barrier could be viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out—but we won’t go there, not yet.


At the same time that classic music was tucking itself into new venues, so too was popular music. Since the early part of the last century, jazz developed alongside later classical music. This popular music was originally played in bars, at funerals, and in whorehouses and joints where dancing was going on. There was little reverberation in those spaces, and they weren’t that big, so, as in CBGB, the groove could be strong and up front.

It’s been pointed out by Scott Joplin and others that 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. The musicians learned to stretch out and extend whatever section of the tune was deemed popular. These improvisations and elongations evolved out of necessity, and a new kind of music came into being.

By the mid-twentieth century, jazz had evolved into a kind of classical music, often presented in concert halls, but if anyone’s been to a juke joint or seen the Rebirth or Dirty Dozen brass bands at a place like the Glass House in New Orleans, then you’ve seen lots of dancing to jazz. Its roots are spiritual dance music. Yes, this is one kind of spiritual music that would sound terrible in most cathedrals.

The instrumentation of jazz was also modified so that the music could be heard over the sound of the dancers and the bar racket. Banjos were louder than acoustic guitars, trumpets were nice and loud too, so, until amplification and microphones came into common use, the instruments written for and played were adapted to fit the situation. The instrumental makeup of the bands, as well as the parts the composers wrote, evolved to be heard.

Likewise, country music, blues, Latin music, and rock and roll were all (originally) music to dance to, and they too had to be loud enough to be heard above the chatter and still work for the dancers. Recorded music and amplification changed all that, but when these forms jelled those factors were just beginning to be felt.

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To pre-order How Music Works, visit our store.