How Music Works Book Summary - How Music Works Book explained in key points
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How Music Works summary

David Byrne

How circumstance and creativity collide in tune

4.4 (120 ratings)
20 mins

Brief summary

How Music Works by David Byrne explores the creative process and cultural significance of music, from the evolution of instruments to the business side of the industry.

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    How Music Works
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    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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    What is How Music Works about?

    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.

    How Music Works Review

    How Music Works (2012) explores the captivating world of music, delving into its origin, composition, and impact on our lives. Here's why this book is definitely worth reading:

    • Byrne's insightful analysis of music's inner workings illuminates the magic behind this universal language, and how it intertwines with our emotions and societies.
    • The book offers a multidimensional perspective on music, covering everything from its cultural and historical context to the technical aspects of sound production.
    • The author's adventurous spirit takes us on a journey through different genres and eras, revealing surprising connections and perspectives that make music a truly enriching experience.

    Who should read How Music Works?

    • Anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of the music business
    • Anyone interested in music’s relationship to its surroundings
    • Anyone who wants to find out why music is so important to humans

    About the Author

    David Byrne is a Scottish-born artist, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and cofounder of Talking Heads. He’s received many awards, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and is the author of Bicycle Diaries and The New Sins.

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    How Music Works FAQs 

    What is the main message of How Music Works?

    The main message of How Music Works is exploring the art and science behind music creation and consumption.

    How long does it take to read How Music Works?

    The reading time for How Music Works varies, but it typically takes a few hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is How Music Works a good book? Is it worth reading?

    How Music Works is a captivating read on the inner workings of music. It offers unique insights and is definitely worth checking out.

    Who is the author of How Music Works?

    The author of How Music Works is David Byrne.

    What to read after How Music Works?

    If you're wondering what to read next after How Music Works, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • Atomic Habits by James Clear
    • Think Again by Adam Grant
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