How Music Works
Canongate, 347pp, £22
Back in the early 2000s, I used to go to see a Massachusetts-based power-pop band called the Pernice Brothers play each time they toured the UK. Their London shows were mostly at the Borderline, a small, Americana-themed venue in Soho with a capacity of about a couple hundred, and their fans – predominantly white men in their thirties wearing flannel shirts – would pack out the place and stand reverently in front of the stage while they performed. It wasn’t music to dance to; instead, the lead singer and songwriter, Joe Pernice, would whisper intimate stories about post-break-up sex and peeping Toms into the microphone, mainly to the stodgy accompaniment of guitars, bass and drums. Trust me, it was great.
One of the highlights of their set would be a cover version of “Please Mr Please”, a country song taken into the US top ten by Olivia Newton John in 1975. The lyrics are standard genre fare: “In the corner of the bar, there stands a jukebox/With the best of country music old and new.” In the chorus, “some button-pushing cowboy” walks over, inserts a quarter into the machine and makes a selection that evidently strikes an unwelcome chord with the narrator: “Please, Mr, please, don’t play B-17/It was our song, it was his song, but it’s over/ Please, Mr, please, if you know what I mean/I don’t ever wanna hear that song again.”
Heartbreaking stuff. But whose heart is being broken here? Why should such a formulaic story affect the listener, or even the singer? After all, the song was written by Bruce Welch and John Rostill of Cliff Richard’s band (!), to be sung by a female vocalist. The “I” can’t literally refer to Pernice’s love life: he was probably about six years old when it was first released.
Questions such as these rarely get much attention, with mainstream music writing still mired in that bogus, pre-modernist obsession with “authenticity” and personality. (Did you hear about Sharon van Etten’s latest album, Tramp? She was “without a home over much of its recording process”, one reviewer excitedly tells us.) Yet David Byrne, former frontman of Talking Heads, ably tackles these issues and more in How Music Works – a partly autobiographical trawl through music history and theory that is essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.
Byrne’s central contention is that, far from being the “product of individual effort”, music is “something that emerges from a community”. He is sceptical about the conventional wisdom that “creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling”, and suggests that “genius”, in reality, appears when “a thing is perfectly suited to its context”.
The medieval composers of Europe, for example, wrote drone-based, modular music for the reverberant cathedrals they played in, where the long echoes wouldn’t allow for key changes or much rhythmic texture, while African music, often played outdoors in front of dancers, emphasises percussion to cut through the background noise. This aptness isn’t merely a utilitarian matching of function and form; rather, it is the intangible element that allows a work to be understood and appreciated.
It also helps makes a song, album or orchestral suite “emotionally resonant”. Byrne doesn’t deny that music is a powerful expressive medium – his own early forays into live performance were inspired by his search for “a way of reaching out and communicating”. However, he rightly explodes the hoary myth that this power is somehow derived from the innate qualities of the music alone. “Social, historical, economic and psychological forces influence what we respond to,” he writes, “just as much as the work itself. The arts don’t exist in isolation. And of all the arts, music, being ephemeral, is the closest to being an experience more than it is a thing.”
As drily academic as this precis may sound, Byrne’s prose style is at all times engaging, even in his digressions. (Birds in San Francisco have raised the pitch of their songs to be audible above the traffic apparently.) Moreover, at the heart of his thesis on the mechanics of music – how it is made; where it is heard; who pays for it – is an impassioned polemic on its “value for humanity in empowering folks to make and create”.
“High” culture, which translates in the minds of many to top-flight classical music and opera, receives a disproportionate amount of funding while grass-roots programmes to promote direct participation in music-making often fall by the wayside. Byrne argues: “By encouraging the creativity of amateurs, rather than telling them that they should passively accept the creativity of designated masters, we help build a social and cultural network.”
From projects in the Brazilian favelas to El Sistema in Venezuela, which, since 1975, has produced 200 youth orchestras and 330,000 players mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, such efforts to democratise music have changed lives “in ways that go far beyond being emotionally or intellectually moved by a specific composition”. By investigating how music works, Byrne shows us how best it can be used. We are all the richer for his effort.