The former frontman of Talking Heads draws lessons from his long and varied career.

Almost exactly 26 years ago, David Byrne was on the cover of Time magazine. “Rock’s Renaissance Man,” the headline proclaimed, because Mr. Byrne, aside from emitting tense yelps as frontman for Talking Heads, one of America’s most revered rock bands, had scored a Twyla Tharp dance piece, written music for an epic Robert Wilson project and was currently in the middle of directing the feature film “True Stories.”

But not long after that, Mr. Byrne the Renaissance Man experienced a small “r” renaissance. In 1988, he explains in “How Music Works,” he began learning to play standards, Philly soul tunes, and songs by Brazilian and Latin musicians. “Beauty was a revelation,” he writes. “I now found that singing was both a physical and emotional joy.” That revelation has resounded in his music ever since.

How Music Works

By David Byrne
McSweeney’s, 352 pages, $32


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Byrne in 1980, the year Talking Heads released ‘Remain in Light.’

Mr. Byrne returns to that idea several times; it was clearly a pivotal experience. And so while the portentously titled “How Music Works” seems to be a sprawling hodgepodge—it’s digressive and single-minded, candid and opaque, fascinating and dull—nearly everything in it can be seen as a gloss on his transformation. Mr. Byrne is exploring all the reasons music is beautiful and how other people, especially musicians, can appreciate and sustain that beauty for themselves.

“How Music Works,” Mr. Byrne warns, is “neither an autobiography nor a series of think pieces—but a little of both.” It isn’t presented in a linear way—even Mr. Byrne says that you can read the chapters in any order. Many passages are straightforward (and duly acknowledged) digests of other people’s ideas. Mr. Byrne juxtaposes them with enthusiastic erudition, but what does the structure of record deals have to do with the sonic theories of Pythagoras and Bing Crosby’s radio show? It only coheres when you realize that “How Music Works” is kind of a self-help book and more autobiographical than it already seems.

“How Music Works” examines how music works on many levels: how the business works, how music perception works, how recording works, how musical communities work, and so forth. It’s also about the effect that technology has on music: Mr. Byrne points out how things like the time limitations of the 78 RPM record, arena venues and drugs have all directly affected not just the sound of music but its composition. He also closely details his creative process, offering an artistic autobiography that spans from when