Summary of How Music Works by David Byrne

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of How Music Works by David Byrne

Music has been a part of human life since the very beginning. Our early ancestors literally set the tone for those that came after them. The journey since then has been truly remarkable. As humans have evolved, so too, has music. This poses the question, do you really know how music works? From the sounds of our environment to the recording studio, how does music actually come together to produce the sounds that we love?

Music moves us, empowers us, heals us and keeps us company in our loneliest hours. So maybe it’s about time for us to learn of its origins and just how it works.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The influence of music on human life
  • How our surroundings influence the music we make
  • Making music -recording, composition and  digital technology
  • Music Collaboration inspires creativity
  • Sales, Venues and the benefits of music

Key lesson one: The influence of music on human life

There are many theories as to how music originated. Some say our ancestors started mimicking the sounds they heard in nature whilst others say music began when mothers made non-verbal sounds to their young. However it may have come about, there is no denying that music has evolved with humans from the beginning.

The earliest evidence of man making music was found in the form of a flute which was dated to be from approximately 45 000 years ago. The notes of the flute are surprisingly the same basic notes which we would find on the white keys of a piano. This means that Neanderthals were playing the flute 45 000 years ago, making music similar to ours today. 

Furthermore, humans have developed many skills over the years that are linked to music. Infants can recognize different musical scales and actually have a preference for harmonies. They can also identify relational pitches which simply means that if they know a song, they will identify it no matter what note it begins with. This explains why kids quickly pick up nursery rhymes. 

Music is with us from the time we are babies and as we get older it begins to hold more meaning. It greatly contributes to our psychological well-being. Research has demonstrated how music stimulates various regions of the brain. This effect is so profound that some people with brain damage cannot get through a day without the help of music. This has even led to the development of therapeutic techniques to treat patients. 

The influence that music has on human life runs deeper than we could ever imagine. Since man came into being, music has accompanied our evolution and influenced our development. Not only have humans developed specialised skills related to music, but we have also become to rely on music for our overall well-being.

Key lesson two: How our surroundings influence the music we make

When humans make music, where do you think the inspiration comes from? Most assume that the music comes from within them. Maybe from some emotion that has inspired them to compose. The reality is that music does not only from within but more so from our surroundings. 

Historically, the melodies played in cathedrals are made up of long notes and slow melodies. People often think that medieval music was simple because complex harmonies had not yet been developed. However, the simple reason behind this is that it is best suited to the building. The sounds resonate for a long time in a cathedral and any shorter notes or faster melodies would sound jarring. And it is not only buildings that influence music but also technology. When the microphone was first created, singers had to change the way they sang. There was no longer a need for them to project their voices to fill a room. 

This adaptation of music in context with our surroundings is something that not only humans do. Animals are also known to adapt to their surroundings. Studies have shown that birds in San Francisco have raised the pitch of their singing over the years so that they can be heard over the increasing traffic noise. Whales have also had to adapt their calls due to the increase in shipping and the noise it creates. 

So, music is often based and composed in context to the surroundings of the composer. Sure, inspiration can come from within, but a good composer considers where their music will be played to get the best outcome.

Key lesson three: Making music – recording, composition and  digital technology

Music was first recorded in 1878 and changed the way in which music was received. Prior to this, music was heard in real-time. As recording music became more popular, it changed the way in which musicians played and sang. They had to adapt their tempo and tones because live music introduced different influences which changed the way they played. This makes sense especially if you consider the music played at a live concert versus the same music played on the radio. Jazz musicians, in particular, feed off each other’s energy and often stray from the original tune as they ‘jam together’. However, in a recording studio, this practices has to be toned down to ensure a clear recording. 

It was also when the vibrato was introduced. Since every small discrepancy in pitch could be picked up in a recording, a vibrato helped cover it up. It was due to this that it was originally considered cheating but over time the vibrato has become so common in music that it actually gets praised. In fact, if we had to hear music without vibrato from either instrument or singers it might seem a bit strange. Recording music has changed the way that we perceive music but does it make it less enjoyable when we hear it live? It’s quite interesting to think that if we recall a song, we think of the recording and not the actual live performance. 

Then digital technology came along and once again changed the way we perceive music. The digital recordings we hear are crisp and clean which is why some purists stick to vinyl records. Digital recording also influenced the way music is composed. Quantizing is now frequently used to keep tempos tight and makes it easier to edit. As much as this sometimes makes a song catchy, it also tends to make it quite uniform which bothers some music lovers. It all depends on what is preferable to your ears. 

Digital recording has also made it possible to turn recording into an art form. Just as how a painter will blend colours to create a masterpiece, so to can a producer and recording engineer create magic with music. They can record instruments and musicians separately before merging them together. This is called the divide and isolate approach which was popular in the 70s. It produced a cleaner sound. But, as mentioned before, when you eliminate the natural interplay between musicians, it somewhat changes the results. Some bands prefer to be recorded together for this reason. They believe that the resulting sound will be more authentic if they are recorded together. What musicians choose at the end of the day also comes down to preference. Sometimes, a combination of both methods is used. There are no rules when it comes to music. 

Key lesson four: Music Collaboration inspires creativity

Some of the greatest songs in music history are the result of successful collaborations between artists. Collaborations can transcend borders and even time with musicians gaining inspiration from the past. Though working in this manner is more difficult than two musicians being in the same room and working together, it does have some advantages as it gives collaborators time to think without distraction. 

No matter which way it is done, collaborating is a creative benefit. Ideas become stronger when different perspectives are added. Most collaborators start with one idea and end up with something completely different. It is why we have hits from the most unlikely combinations of artists.

Key lesson five: Sales, Venues and the benefits of music

Music keeps evolving with humans. In our modern world, music distribution has changed drastically. Record sales have dropped since the implementation of digital distribution. This means that the way artists make money has also changed. 

Recording deals have also changed. No longer can an artist survive on a cut from record sales alone. This is why live concerts and merchandise have become such a big part of the music industry. It is also why the music business is now somewhat flexible. Artists are no longer reliant on recording companies and can choose whether they want to work independently. This has resulted in online releases of new albums, self-recorded and self-marketed albums. In a world so enthralled with the internet and social media, it’s not that hard to do. 

Artists have also become selective in the venues they choose to play their music. Venues can have a huge impact on the way an artist or band are received. It is why so many country artists head to Nashville to have a shot at open mic nights at famous venues. Being able to start out at small, intimate venues allows the music to shine and people to genuinely enjoy what the artist is doing. It sets the tone, builds confidence and lets musicians know what works on an audience and what does not. 

Music also has so many benefits to all who pursue it. No matter if it is classical or modern, music has the ability to bring people together and bring about change where it is needed. It is therefore important that creative programs also include music. It is therapeutic and can help in the fight against crime and poverty by giving those at risk an outlet. This has been demonstrated time and time again by various programs throughout the world. Music can change lives which is why it has and will always be a part of human life. 

The key takeaway from How Music Works is:

Music has evolved alongside man from the very beginning. Humans have developed specialised skills which influence the way we play and perceive music. It starts from the time we are infants and progresses as we get older and technology changes. With every change in technology, recording processes and editing technology, the way in which we hear music also changes. Everyone has their own unique preference which is why some music is more enjoyable to us than others. No matter how music changes though, the benefits it provides to our overall wellbeing cannot be denied. This is why it plays such an integral part in human lives. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in How Music Works:

Music in all forms is beneficial. Learning to play a musical instrument will engage both your body and your brain. It is great for your psychological well-being and will build your skills. Who knows? You might be a natural! You never know until you try.

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