Book Review: “How Music Works” by David Byrne

Book Review: “How Music Works” by David Byrne

Founding member of Talking Heads and inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, David Byrne has had a prolific musical career. In his book, “How Music Works,” Byrne shares a lifetime’s worth of pondering over music.


“How Music Works” is an easily accessible book, even for those who may not be very literate in music. He draws on both personal anecdotes and music theory to share his conception of how music works — how it’s born, how it dies, how it’s reborn, and how it is shaped by its surrounding culture.

In Byrne's recently released book, he shares his life's musical experience. (

In Byrne’s recently released book, he shares his life’s musical experience. (


Byrne’s book has received a fair amount of criticism. Dwight Garner of The New York Times, for example, wrote that the book “is a roll of mental wallpaper, a textbook for a survey course you didn’t mean to sign up for. It drifts between music history, sonic anthropology, mild biographical asides, broad pop theory and grandfatherly financial and artistic advice.”


Though Byrne writes that his book “is not an autobiographical account of my life,” many of his past experiences arise when relevant through the chapters. His experience allows him to — without the use of heavy theory and scientific support — address the central question that he considers “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us.”


The pages of Byrne’s books are often bordered by pictures that he references in the surrounding text, which adds a fascinating visual component to his ideas. The pictures extend Byrne’s ideas to a deeper level and reflect his intimate relationship with music; it can’t be contained by words alone.


Have you read “How Music Works?” If so, let me know what you thought in the comments or on Twitter @ryanlawlessness

Ryan Lawless

Ryan Lawless is an undergraduate student at Fordham University. He studies English and Spanish as majors, and philosophy as a minor. He won the Margaret Lamb Writing to the Right-Hand Margin award for creative fictional writing, and has been published in Fordham's literary magazine The Ampersand, and its newspaper, The Observer. Ryan grew up in New York, but is also an Irish citizen. He enjoys fiddles, coffee, and music.

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