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 he was a teen playing “96 Tears” on the sidewalk to nearly the present day.

Now 60, he has retained a bright-eyed curiosity—recently, he has collaborated with virtuosic, visionary young musicians such as Dirty Projectors and St. Vincent—which insulates him from being just another geezer pining for the old days. “We read over and over that the music business is going down the drain,” he writes, “but this is actually a great time to be making music—full of possibility.”

A good chunk of the book is devoted to explaining why. “If you think success in the world of music is determined by the number of records sold, or the size of your house or bank account, then I’m not the expert for you,” Mr. Byrne writes. “I am more interested in how people can manage a whole lifetime in music.” He even provides a basic toolkit: For one long, bone-dry stretch, he dutifully details the ways musicians can release recorded music, from the potentially extortionate “360 deal” with a large music corporation to self-distribution. But then Mr. Byrne does something remarkable: He shows us the money. He breaks down the financials, complete with colorful pie charts, for his 2009 collaboration with Brian Eno, the self-distributed “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.” This is fairly unprecedented for a musician at his level. It turns out that he made more on it than he did from his 2004 major-label album “Grown Backwards,” despite selling roughly the same number of records and splitting the profits with Eno.

Occasionally, he throws fans a bone, like wonderful, extended reminiscences and insights about the early CBGB scene of the mid-1970s, particularly how it confirmed a central thesis of the book, that context greatly determines art: “The venue and its policies,” Mr. Byrne avers, “make a scene happen as much as the creativity of the musicians.” He cites seemingly minute but critical factors: the shape of the room, the height of the stage, and how the lack of proper dressing rooms helped foster punk’s defining egalitarianism.

Mr. Byrne’s recollections of punk’s birth are like catnip. The idea was to leave behind the arena rockers and manufactured pop stars of the day— “Some of them had some great songs,” Mr. Byrne writes, “but they sure weren’t singing about the world as we were experiencing it.” There is plenty about Talking Heads too. Watching footage of the band’s earliest performances, he writes, is like “looking at a framework, an architectural drawing, and being asked to imagine where the walls and sink might go.” He examines many of the more than two dozen studio albums he has made, including landmarks like “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” and “Remain in Light.” The gnomic tidbits he drops will be enlightening for anybody interested in the process of making music. His take on the deceptive simplicity of rock music: “When everything is visible and appears to be dumb, that’s when the details take on larger meanings.” And the secret to collaborating: “Leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you possibly can.”

Except for diagnosing himself with a mild form of Asperger’s, there’s not much personal autobiography: “The ‘aging rocker bio’ is a crowded shelf,” Mr. Byrne protests. But maybe that’s an excuse for not revealing too much about himself, a deliberate opacity disguised as courtly modesty. When, for instance, he discusses evolving ideas about songwriting credit, he leaves out the bitter feuding that Talking Heads did about that very thing. He reserves his animosity for scolding concert promotion monolith Live Nation, iTunes and the way “creative tinkering by non-professionals has been crippled” by technology and media companies.

Mr. Byrne loves amateur music-makers and reminds that they can have a life in music too. The first phonographs allowed people to record themselves; the feature was soon eliminated, a development the author blames on “a cultural hierarchy that devalues our amateur efforts.” He argues for more music funding and that arts training promotes creative problem-solving ability, concluding that “the arts are good for the economy and their presence makes for more interesting living as well.” Creation as discovery is Mr. Byrne’s central ethos. “We don’t make music,” he writes, “it makes us.”

Article written by Michael Azerrad on the WSJ.