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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