out of (con)text: “How Music Works” by David Byrne

“out of (con)text” is a series of sentences I’ve highlighted from a book. they are completely out of order and out of context. this whole effort is in lieu of a formal book review, but you should Assume I liked the book and think you might too.


“I had a recording of koalas that I’d made while we were on tour in Australia (they mainly grunt and snort, in contrast to their cutesy appearance), and that got added in here and there. The grunts worked like indeterminate animal answers and echoes to my singing.”

“Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike.”

“The ‘don’t give a shit’ attitude of the amateur is another precious commodity. The Spanish film director Fernando Trueba claims that many directors’ best films are the ones they didn’t care all that much about. These films, he says, have more soul than the films those same directors made when they intentionally set out to create a masterpiece. Amateurism, or at least the lack of pretension associated with it, can be liberating.”

“The eddies and backwaters of pop music do indeed produce some magical, unexpected meetings”

“As music becomes less of a thing—a cylinder, a cassette, a disc—and more ephemeral, perhaps we will start to assign an increasing value to live performances again. After years of hoarding LPs and CDs, I have to admit I’m now getting rid of them. I occasionally pop a CD into the player, but I’ve pretty much completely converted to listening to MP3s either on my computer or, gulp, my phone! For me, music is becoming dematerialized, a state that is more truthful to its nature, I suspect. Technology has brought us full circle.”

“I began to notice, for example, that the choice of a hard consonant instead of a soft one implied something, something emotional. A consonant wasn’t merely a formal decision, it felt different.”

 “Wait—life is wonderful, sexy, sensual, and one must persevere, and maybe even find some joy.”

“The way we imagine what our senses do is affected by our cultural biases as well as by the way our language limits our perception. What we refer to simply as the sense of touch actually includes separate sensors for vibration, texture, temperature, and movement—each of which could have qualified as a separate sense, should our culture have deemed them important. The Hausa in Africa identify only two senses: seeing and experiencing. The experiencing sense includes intuition (why don’t we include this as a sense?) , emotion, smell, touch, and hearing. The Ivilik Inuit, who live in northeast Labrador, don’t think of space in visual terms the way we do (possibly because their visual environment is almost devoid of features and landmarks); they think of space by referencing other senses.”

“A Sia Indian who lives in a pueblo in northern New Mexico said, ‘My friend, without songs you cannot do anything.'”

“Music, in this way of thinking, became a space you inhabited rather than a discrete object. There’s a similarity here to the Chinese musical tradition that sees each tone as a musical entity in itself. This is a very different approach from the classical Western view, which says that music is about relationships between pitches and notes rather than the sound of the notes themselves. Chinese composer Chou Wen-chung wrote an essay in 1971 in which he seems to agree when McLuhan says that in the West, how things are organized is more important than what those things are.”

“We’re fascinated and drawn to stuff that science can’t explain—the transcendent, the uncanny, things that affect us without words—and music both touches on an emanates from those mysteries. It reconnects us to that lost time of enchantment.”