David Byrne Gives Us the Lowdown on How Music Works (with Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin)

“I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation,” writes eclectically minded musician David Byrne in the opening chapter of his new book How Music Works. “That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed.” This comes as only the first in a series of illuminating ideas Byrne lays out in the text, a far-reaching meditation on artistic creation through the field that happens to be his specialty. Approaching music — you know, the stuff he made at the front of the Talking Heads and continues to make in solo albums and collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno and St. Vincent —  from as many angles as he can, he writes about its technology, the business of it, its social elements, its role in his life, and what science and nature have to teach us about its mechanics. For more on that last bit, watch the above conversation from Seed magazine, which sits Byrne down with Dan Levitin, neuroscientist, musician, and author of This is Your Brain on Music. Though it precedes the publication of How Music Works by about five years, the chat covers great stretches of highly relevant ground.

Watching this back-and-forth, I could swear to seeing some of the concepts developed in How Music Works taking early shape in Byrne’s head. He and Levitin discuss the widespread suspicion of deliberate craft in an ostensibly emotional form like rock and roll; the way music generates pleasure by taking detours and disrupting patterns; the relationship between understanding songs and acquiring languages; the sensory similarities between listening to music and drinking wine; the nature of trance states; and the long-standing yet seemingly now changing social function of music. Byrne admits that music actually helped him change his own behavior: “I used music as a real tool to find my way into engaging socially,” he says, and this ties in with everything the two have spent the past hour talking about. Intellectual though their musicophilia may seem, they never forget about the pre-rational elements of the musical experience. The guiding notion of their conversation might have been summed up by Carl Sagan: “It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic,” he wrote in another context, “but is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.”

Related content:

Oliver Sacks Talks Music with Jon Stewart

David Byrne: How Architecture Helped Music Evolve

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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  1. Katie Dewitz says . . . | June 10, 2013 / 7:49 pm

    What David says about poetry having a sonic quality made me think of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose “sprung rhythm” is as much a part of his poems as are the words.

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