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How Music Works

How circumstance and creativity collide in tune

By David Byrne
  • Read in 16 minutes
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  • Contains 10 key ideas
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How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works sets out to explain the workings of music from ancient history up to now. Writing from an insider’s perspective, David Byrne delves into different aspects of popular music, based on current research, music history, technical knowledge and his life-long career in the new wave band Talking Heads.

Key idea 1 of 10

It’s our surroundings, not just our emotions and skills, that determine the kind of music we make.

Think about a piece of music that affects you. Do you believe that it came from a “place within” the artist?

If the answer is “yes,” you’re not alone: most people believe that music emerges out of some interior emotion. Consider how easy it is to conjure up an image of a composer suddenly arrested by inspiration, and furiously scribbling down an already fully formed composition.

We also usually assume that musical compositions depend solely on their creators’ abilities. For instance, most people think that Western medieval music is harmonically “simple” because composers hadn’t yet developed the ability to use more complex harmonies.

But these assumptions are wrong. It actually works the other way around: we create music that fits the context available to us.

For example, long notes and slowly progressing melodies work beautifully in stone-walled Gothic cathedrals, since sounds will resonate for a long time in this setting. Medieval music that was played in these cathedrals had to be harmonically “simple” because shifting musical keys would result in dissonance, as notes overlapped and clashed.

Furthermore, with the introduction of new technologies came new ways of singing. The arrival of the microphone, for example, meant that singers no longer needed great lungs to project their voice. This led people like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to change their vocal dynamics radically; they thereby became pioneers in the practice of singing “to the microphone.”

But this phenomenon of adapting music to its surrounding context is not limited to humans. Research shows that the songs of different animals have evolved to fit their environment. In San Francisco, for example, birds have gradually raised the pitch of their singing so they could be heard above the increased traffic noise. And, in the last few decades, whales have adapted their calls to be heard over the increased shipping noise.

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