On David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

It’s hard to keep track of all the things David Byrne does. He’s the former front man of the Talking Heads, of course, but also a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with musicians from all over the world, a record label founder, a sound art installation artist, a designer, a visual artist, a photographer,a bicycle enthusiast, a blogger, and a writer. Everything connects in Byrne’s world, and he is excellent at getting us to hear, see, and read how and why. How Music Works (McSweeney’s 2012) is Byrne’s set of essays about music and his ongoing musical life. The book is part memoir, part music ethnography, part music history/music theory, part cultural critique, part music business advice manual, and part diary. It all adds to up to a meandering yet consistently engaging read. Part of what makes Byrne interesting is how he takes on the big issues–issues that many academic specialists might avoid–by taking a bird’s-eye view of music making on a global scale.

Byrne is a generalist in the best sense of the word, constantly asking questions about the nature of music, how it works, and how it affects us. For example, in the opening chapter, he examines the possibility that music evolves to suit its acoustic context. Byrne illustrates his thesis by comparing and contrasting varied musical traditions (and their contexts) that range from West African drumming to Gregorian chant, opera, to Bach, Mozart and Mahler. It’s a fascinating perspective that helps explain the possible relationships between musical structure and acoustic context. As Byrne points out, the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming would be a blur of sound inside a gothic cathedral; likewise, chant music sung outside would miss the sustain and ambiance provided by a church’s resonant interior space. Later in the book, Byrne extends this concept of space shaping musical style in his discussion of CBGB’s, the New York bar rock club the Talking Heads first honed their craft and sound. All this fits with Byrne’s general theory that creativity is not such much about the artist who makes stuff as much as it is about the conditions–social, but also physical and acoustic–that make the artist’s craft possible in the first place.

In addition to weaving grand theories, Byrne writes about the musics around him as they make sense through his own listening. He makes striking observations about contemporary hip hop, for example. Designed for booming sound systems, hip hop heard emanating from a moving car, says Byrne, is “generous music” in that its booming low end is publicly shared for all to hear (whether they want to or not!). The style is also kind of abstract in that it “floats free of all worldly reference” (132). Byrne elaborates: “It’s music that, by design, affects the body. It’s very sensuous and physical, even though the sounds themselves don’t relate to any music that has ever been physically produced. You can’t play air guitar or mimic playing an instrument to a contemporary hip-hop record; even the sounds that signify ‘drums’ don’t sound like a drum kit” (132). Similarly, Byrne is adept at explaining his own history of making music–at home alone in his studio, or in his many collaborations with other musicians (most recently with St. Vincent). Byrne shares his technique for improvising wordless melodies (158), working with the limitations of computer software, and even the genesis of his lyrics for the Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime” (161). Byrne likes music that grooves and makes us move and explains how the Talking Heads essentially made acoustic dance music, working collaboratively in the studio as a human step sequencer: “One or two people would lay down a track, usually some kind of repetitive groove that would last about four minutes…Others would respond to what had been out down, adding their own repetitive parts, filling in the gaps and spaces, for the whole length of the ‘song'”(157-58).

For Byrne, this collaborative songwriting process was “about hunting and pecking with the aim of ‘finding’ short, sonic, modular pieces…Then we would shape those accumulated results into something resembling a song structure” (186). Insiders’ accounts of musical process like Byrne’s help us understand what it was like to be making popular art music on the lower East side of Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It captures the feeling of being on the crest of a wave that included punk (the Ramones also played at CBGB’s), disco, gospel and other American vernacular musics, and modern classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass–and how these styles and sounds came crashing together in the Talking Heads’ post-punk, pre-synth pop art-dance funk-rock. Says Byrne, “while punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” Using only a single chord “made the tracks feel more trance-like, somewhat transcendent, ecstatic even–more akin to African music or Gospel or disco” (159). These tracks, he says, were “driven more by textural variation than by melody or harmony–more like minimal classical music or some traditional forms of music around the world than the rock and pop traditions we came out of” (159).

Inspired by Byrne’s description of his one-chord rock, I had a re-listen to “Once In A Lifetime.” I first heard the song in the early 1980s via MTV. I was a little young to appreciate the music back then, but I do remember the live concert video in which a sweaty Byrne dressed in an oversized suit channeled the role of a preacher on a roll. As I listened to the song again I was struck by how solid, rhythmic, and well orchestrated the song is. Wow! It really does sound like a band making steady-state acoustic machine music, with just enough little quirky touches–like the occasional slightly wonky drum hit–to give it soul. What is most noticeable to me is how every part–the two note bass part, the disco guitars, and even the vocals–fits into its own rhythmic slot and leaves room for the others. Here’s the song:

There’s a lot of other material covered in How Music Works too–including essays on music recording technology, the politics of elitism in classical music, and the evolutionary origins of music. Here and elsewhere, what Byrne’s book does best is convey the thinking of an artist still very much at work–listening, composing, performing, collaborating, reading, mulling ideas over, spinning theories, sharing passions and excitement, giving advice, and even giving credit where credit is due. At one point in the book, Byrne simply suggests that for him, creativity is something to engage in as an everyday activity like cooking or doing errands. Creativity is also an emergent force–less a product of our individual talents than the networks of energy and information in which we find ourselves. It’s an interesting notion, and one that How Music Works communicates over and over by being generous, open, and self-effacing.

How Many Words Is A Sound Recording Worth?

“Seeing is believing, but hearing is hearsay” — Julian Henriques, Sonic Bodies (2011)

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Instamatic, a smartphone photo app, because it makes me feel like a skilled photographer. The app is essentially photo editing software that allows you to quickly–really quickly, with the tap of a virtual button, actually–apply a range of filters to your photo to make it look sharper and just plain cooler. Cooler because the filters make your photo look old, moody, vintage, over-saturated, analog old-school, or as Leonard Koren might describe the worn aesthetic–wabi-sabi (you can read more about this Japanese concept here). Instamatic is also a social app, allowing you to share pics with other Instamatic users. So I imagine there are billions of Instamatic photos floating out in the ether, capturing and constructing cool wherever we users happen to point our camera-phones. It feels that easy to use: point, shoot, add filter. Here is one of my pics:

You get the idea.

Thinking about it, it strikes me that Instamatic encourages people to think photographically–to be on their toes, ready for cool sights to capture and render. This is a good thing in that the app pushes us to be visual ethnographers, documenting the passing, strange, and wonderful of our everyday lives. When we take pictures, we see the world differently for a few moments. We think about how we can “frame” what we observe around us, and how we can compress the seen into a visual document for posterity or for our friends. A lot is captured in a photo too. Consider the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” which refers to the idea that a complex idea can be conveyed through a single image. If this isn’t literally true, then pictures at least provide the illusion of capturing ideas because in pictures we notice so many details, contrasts, and relationships.

But here are my questions: How many words is a sound worth? And if there were an Instagram-like app for capturing, filtering, and sharing sound (calling all app developers out there!), would have it have the same emotional resonance as Instagram?


I decided to experiment with taking a field recording I made on my iPhone and running it through some effects processing to try to create some different aural moods. The recording is of a man playing the accordian on a subway platform at Grand Central Station in New York City. After listening to him for a while, I donated some money and he turned to face me so I could take a photo. I liked the music he was playing, and liked it even more as I fiddled around with adding effects to it.

Here is my original field recording:

Here is the clip with delay added so that it sounds like the instrument is bouncing off walls, all dubby and mysterious:

Here is the clip with static added so that it sounds somewhat like an old recording:

Here is the clip with chorusing and flanging added:

Here is the clip with distortion added:

Here is the clip with reverb added so that it sounds like it’s in a cave or large cathedral:

Here is the clip with a glitch-y effect added:

You get the idea. (My favorite, by the way, is the clip with delay added.)

Now one question is whether or not the application of these audio effects affects the mood of the original recording. The answer, I think, is yes, but exactly how the effects alter the mood is somewhat hard to describe. A second and even more fundamental question: Do the audio clips convey as much as the photo of the accordian player conveys? I think so, though the things they tell us are of a different order. Given that I have included a photo of the musician above, we can directly compare the different kinds of information the visual and aural media bring to our awareness. Looking at his photo, you might notice how he’s dressed (casually in jeans, and with a baseball cap), the expression on his face as he plays (pretty neutral, though he was smiling for my picture), or even the heft of his instrument–it almost looks like it’s a struggle just to get those accordian bellows to wheeze into life. My photo captures these bits of information, but it leaves other things out. By contrast, the audio recording isn’t static like the photo is. Instead, it captures the accordian player’s performance over time (about a minute and half of time, in fact). This allows us to experience the non-musical ambient sounds of the subway too–for example, the sounds of other people, and the sounds of spare change landing in the musician’s open instrument case. Without anything to see, we can only focus on the audible information, but we’re granted the luxury of letting that information reveal itself over a duration. Finally, what’s most striking to me when comparing the photograph of the accordian player with a recording of his music is that the music seems more melancholy and expressive than its maker actually looks. The music seems to tell a story that we might miss if we were only looking.

On Repetition: “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”

“I would see ideas in dreams.” – Jiro Ono

Just as I was beginning to think I might know something about repetition, I watched a film that made me rethink that notion. The film is David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011) which follows around 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono as he works in his tiny Tokyo restaurant with his son, Yoshikazu. Jiro loves what he does and has been doing it for a very, very long time.

What is fascinating about this movie is how simple and repetitious Jiro’s work appears to be, while at the same time how resonant it is–for him and for his customers who eat what is widely considered to be the best sushi in the world. Every day, for the past seventy years or so, Jiro comes to the restaurant and makes sushi: pressing a small piece of fish on top of some rice gently shaped in his fingers, painting on a little special glaze, and then plating the finished food for immediate consumption. Like a musician playing onstage, it’s an evanescent performance that comes and goes in mere (delicious) moments. But Jiro extends this moment, coming to work seven days a week, year after year, decade after decade, in constant pursuit of the elusive “perfect” piece of sushi. Moreover, the chef claims that he uses no secret techniques or ingredients in his work (besides the freshest fish, and what is that special glaze anyway?) and that he’s not trying to be special or unique. So how is Jiro’s food so tasty (earning the restaurant 3 Michelin stars) and how does the chef remain so engaged and driven? In short, what makes him tick?

In part, the answer seems to lie in transformative power of repetition itself. Through the film we learn about Jiro’s notion that “ultimate simplicity leads to purity” and the importance of repeating the same routine every day in pursuit of perfection. We also learn about the Japanese concept of shokunin which describes someone along the lines of a craftsman or an artisan, but with a spiritual/ethical dimension added in that requires that one’s work be approached conscientiously, with commitment, and for the betterment of humanity. While shokunin may seem like a step beyond sushi making, it nevertheless encapsulates Jiro’s approach. Thoughtful repetition affords him an ongoing opportunity to transform his outwardly simple work into something very special. Just as ultimate simplicity leads to purity, so too perhaps can purity achieved through simplicity become a form of deep complexity.


Jiro Dreams Of Sushi has a repetitious soundtrack too, using as it does a fair amount of music by the contemporary classical composers Philip Glass and Max Richter (plus some Tchaikovsky, Bach and Mozart). The music adds a layer of insistence of the film, but I wonder if all this was necessary? I say this because there were a few moments in the film when the music distracted me and got me thinking: how quickly some forms of musical minimalism have become shorthand for conveying, in a contemporary language, the sensation of urgent constant forward motion tinged with a kind of wistfulness at the very fact of time’s passing. Do we need this kind of musical meta-commentary on Jiro’s life? The film could have used traditional Japanese music, or maybe jettisoned the soundtrack altogether.

In this clip from the film, a food critic who is sitting at the end of the sushi bar watching others eat describes how the unfolding of a Jiro sushi meal is similar to a performance of classical music:

On Small Things And Big Pleasures: David Guetta’s “Titanium”

I get excited by small things. The other day I bought a mechanical pencil to highlight books with as I read. While holding the pencil that evening and underlining, I was struck by the pleasure this $2.19 purchase had brought. It’s precise, light, and helps do a job, with the added grace of having an eraser on the end should I want to backtrack. Other little things that pack big pleasures come to mind:

The texture of a perfectly cooked soft-boiled egg whose yoke is in that liminal state between overcooked and runny–just right.

Or the feel of new soft socks that are cushiony marvels of cotton and other materials (Lycra?) that magically mould to the foot. Ahh.

None of these things cost much, but they deliver a whole lot of good.


One of music’s delights is how it creates a space for lots of small things to happen and be heard at the same time. Almost not matter what music you listen to, there’s a lot of this simultaneous micro activity happening. Sometimes this activity isn’t heard as much as felt, but either way it forms the tangible part of music’s texture and deeply shapes how it impacts us. Take David Guetta’s recent-ish dance pop smash (104 million views on YouTube) “Titanium”, which was written by the smooth Australian singer Sia who also sings on the track. On the face of it, this is an oversized anthem of a song–all big featured and perhaps not so subtle. But for me, the elements that makes it work and have the impact it does are Guetta’s little production effects and arrangement decisions that keep the music compelling and moving along.

Structurally, “Titanium” is a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus-chorus affair. The piece begins with a muffled electric guitar plucking away a four-bar chord progression in e-flat major: E-flat (I), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The first time I heard it I thought of the Police’s ballad “Every Breathe You Take”–same muffled and arpeggiated guitar (only the guitar on the Police song opens with an eight bar, four-chord progression). Soon a kick drum and a bassline enter the mix for the second half of the verse. When the chorus arrives, the chord progression changes to A-flat major (iv), B-flat major (V), g-minor (iii), and c-minor (vi). The chorus also momentarily sets Sia’s voice free of the drums and bass which abruptly cut out–a classic DJ compositional move–only to return a few bars later. After the chorus, the song continues to the next verse, but this time around the rhythm section joins in sooner. Then back to the chorus, a bridge (well, a quasi-bridge, since it’s sung over the same chorus chords), and a few more choruses to the end. At a tempo of around 126 BPM, “Titanium” clocks in at 3:50–the ideal pop song length.

Now for those little things in Guetta and Sia’s song that deliver a whole lot of musical good:

First, if you listen to the four-bar guitar part on the verse, you’ll notice some small amounts of a reverb tail added in specific spots. You can hear it on beat four of bars one and two, as well as on all four beats of bar four. The reverb makes it sound like the guitar has been placed in an echoey stairwell for just a moment, making those muffled staccato notes momentarily become un-detached and blur together in a mass of sound that grows in intensity. The addition of the reverb lends the guitar part a subtle kind of accentuation which might be represented as: 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. This reverb-accent creates a forward momentum that makes the downbeats of bars one, two, and three seem all that more exciting.

Second, Sia’s vocals undergo a shift as the song moves from the verses to the choruses. Listen closely and you hear her overdubbed voice double tracked on the chorus–super high notes mostly on the right, and lower harmony on the left singing “you shoot me down, but I won’t fall …”–leaving the space in the middle of the stereo mix curiously devoid of her lead vocal. That lead vocal from the verse that should be in the middle of the stereo mix just disappears for a few seconds. Interesting.

Third, the percussion on this song is fairly sparse. On the verses, it’s mostly the 4/4 kick drum. Eight bars in, just when you think a snare drum will join the mix on beats two and four, it doesn’t. Instead it’s replaced by a light and fluttering electronic brush sound playing an off-beat pattern. When the chorus arrives, all of the percussion cuts out entirely for the first eight bars. Then a snare drum enters, playing on beats 1,2,3 and 4 of the second four bars. On the final eight bars the snare cuts out the kick drum returns. In terms of what a real drummer might do, this is one awkward and disembodied drum part. But it’s a programmed part, and virtual musicianship has more leeway than would be accorded to a real musician. Guetta’s percussion–the kick, the fluttering electronic brush, the snare–holds together more because it’s quantized than because it sounds like a real drummer.

Which brings us to a fourth little thing that holds “Titanium” together: the fact that the whole mix sounds like it’s pulsating along the 8th-note groove set up at the outset by the arpeggiating guitar. This can be heard in a big way on the choruses when the kick drum returns and along with it a pulsating set of chords and a throbbing baseline. Production-wise, it’s quite simple to make a pulsating or throbbing sound by putting a compressor effect on say, a bass or keyboard part, and chaining this compressor to the song’s 4/4 kick drum. Each time the kick drum hits, the compressor on the bass or keyboard part will, well, kick in and “duck” the sound out of the way or momentarily lower its volume. It’s this ducking out of the way that gives a lot of electronic dance music its signature pumping sound. Not only that, but while the technique was originally used to make mixes “tighter” and more energized, it can be used to an extreme too. Listen again to the chorus of “Titanium” when the kick re-enters. To my ear it sounds like compression overkill that makes for a squashed and flattened mix. But maybe this is what works well in huge performance venues?

This sense of pulsation can be heard in more discreet ways too. For instance, I notice it on the little delays added to Sia’s vocals that become more intense as the song unfolds. The delays are synced to the song’s tempo and you can hear them bouncing off into the soundstage horizon long after Sia finishes singing her brief lines, helping build the momentum and make the music feel inevitable.

In sum, “Titanium” uses a number of small production techniques to make itself hum and thrum. If I may offer a scenario not as a criticism but more as a thought experiment: if you were to render this song on an acoustic guitar with a single voice overtop it might not be as much to listen to, and may not even convincingly hold together…Well, okay, scratch that idea, because it turns out that there are acoustic covers of the song that do hold together, such as this one. Nevertheless, Guetta’s digital incarnation of “Titanium” coheres with the help of computer stitching on the disembodied drum kit, the reverb and compression effects, and the little slights of ear like Sia’s overdubbed voices.

It turns out that this song offers a number of musical subtleties. And as with the pleasures of a mechanical pencil, a soft-boiled egg, or soft socks, “Titanium” doesn’t cost much in terms of your attention, yet delivers a whole lot of good.

On Sounds And Humor

It took all of three minutes, but the guy on the subway was making all kinds sounds with his voice and as I listened to him I couldn’t stop giggling.

Verbal Ace is his name and he’s a vocal artist, a human beatboxer, a singer, a sound effects machine, and mimic extraordinaire. Armed with just a microphone and a small battery-powered amplifier slung over his shoulder, he performs a stand up sonic comedy, leading his captive listeners on a journey through his strange audiophonic obsessions.

Ace’s performance begins with a brief personal introduction and then a throwback to “Axel F”, the theme song to the 1980s movie Beverly Hills Cop. Composed by Harold Faltermeyer, this synth- and drum machine-driven instrumental with its infectious (and cheesy) lead hook used to obsess me to no end. Here’s the original video for the song.

As I hear “Axel F” I smile while frantically searching for the audio recorder app on my phone.

Ace’s “Axel F” soon goes into remix mode, the drums morphing into turntable scratches interspersed with outsized shout-out interjections to–curiously enough–Sponge Bob Squarepants.

Ace does sound effects too: crickets and an alarm clock to start with and then onto the sounds of the recorded voice announcements heard on the subway. Ace does the woman’s and the man’s voices perfectly.

Now I’m laughing as I check the sound levels on my recording. Actually, there are no sound levels to check! It’s just that I can’t bring myself to look up at this unexpected source of audio humor so I pretend to be busy.

Ace (in the booming and chirpy male announcer’s voice): “The next train will arrive in one day.” And then this: “Thank you for riding the MTA–as if you had any choice in the matter.”

As the train makes its stops, Ace pulls out more tricks to pull in his audience. He interacts with the train’s sounds in real-time–imitating, for instance, the two-tone chime of the doors opening and closing to the point that I’m note sure which sound is the real one.


What makes me laugh is the musicality of Ace’s vocal mimicry. It’s one thing to have an ear for something, and most of us have very excellent ears in the sense that we can recognize the exact sounds of those male and female subway announcers’ voices after hearing them even only once. But few of us can build on our ability to recognize a sound’s distinctive characteristics and then verbally reproduce that sound ourselves. I wouldn’t even know how to begin doing a vocal impression of an alarm clock or a cricket. I know the sounds well but can’t produce them.

Ace also makes me laugh because of his ability to transcend what for most of us are limits to what our voices can do. Our voices are our primary audio stamp, our distinctive timbral profile that completes our physical presence. But Ace’s vocal pyrotechnics suggest, Gumby-like, a more fungible timbral essence; in fact, he seems to become whatever it is he imitates. I laugh because ultimately I find Ace’s uncanny way with sound a little unsettling. Here I am assuming that each of us is has a settled and fixed sonic identity while Ace demonstrates just the opposite.

Here is a video clip someone posted on YouTube of Ace doing essentially the same routine as the one I heard: