How Music Works How Music Works
San Francisco:
McSweeney’s, 2013




“Everything started with a sound. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ the Bible tells us. We are told it was the sound of God’s voice that caused Nothing to become Something.” (p. 301)

There’s something magical about the David Byrne book, How Music Works. He circles and floats in any number of directions at every moment. He refuses to write in a straight line. In a book about music, he does not define the term “music” until page 210. Given his musical career, this certainly comes as no great surprise. Intellectual, quirky, and creative (perhaps painfully so at times), Byrne’s writing mirrors his musical creativity. Why would anyone suggest this book as a resource for people thinking about church development and change?

Well, because he refuses to define his terms until almost two-thirds through the book, that’s why. What makes Byrne troubling is also what makes his work so engaging. There is much to learn here and not simply about music.

As has been written by many, it is not just the institutional church that is suffering various social pressures. It is all our institutions. Thus, the music industry is similarly beleaguered. Technological innovation, cultural hybridity, the blurring of community identification, the increasingly marketing savvy populace, have all had an impact upon the viability of what has been the principal means of transmitting music for more than half a century. David Byrne, through a heavily autobiographical work, walks us through the changes he has witnessed in the music industry from the early 1970’s onward.

How Music Works is an intellectual (if not precisely academic) excursus of popular music and musical culture of the last half century. It is full of interesting history and theory about music and community formation. Byrne tracks his own development as a musician, the effects of technology upon music making and music making people and communities, the realities of the music business, community, amateur music (a most helpful chapter for clergy), and lastly, the more esoteric uses for music (with a nod to ritual).

“Creation in Reverse” is the most specifically autobiographical chapter. Byrne chronicles his development as a musician. He begins, however, by discussing the nature of creativity and composition, specifically in its relationship to space. One does not compose music for CBGB (the Punk club Talking Heads and many others performed in) in the same way that one composes for the great cathedrals of Europe. Acoustics, architectural aesthetics, and how people are supposed to gather in these spaces all play their part in composition and creativity. This last aspect is what I found most intriguing. How are the people supposed to engage the music and for what purpose? Byrne has a keen ear for ritual and offers much insight (even if it is to remind us of the obvious) as to the connections between ritual musics and more “popular” forms. Byrne is famous for his use of Asian (China, Bali, and India most often) theater and ritual in creating a visual aesthetic for his own concerts. His choices are not thoughtless, though I find his stylistic liberality to be careless at times.

As a liturgist, I found this analysis of the audience most intriguing, “The audience loves to hear songs they’ve heard before,…They don’t want an immaculate reproduction of the record, they want it skewed in some way. They want to seem something familiar from a new angle” (p. 57). Do we expect each Sunday to be an immaculate (a curious word in this context) reproduction of the previous week? Of course not. We expect something familiar but presented with some awareness of the singular moment of the individual liturgy. No liturgy is repeatable. Byrne admits that the pressure can be maddening.

Similar to his use of Asian theater, Byrne explores Candomblé and Santería. His interest is in the connections between religious ritual and musical performance. What is the spirituality of performance? What makes one performer “authentic” and another a hack? He skates through this section, but offers some keen insights about cultural borrowing and what it means to be born within a certain musical culture. He explores the racial assumptions in the American music industry specifically the system of marketing called “genre.”

“[A concert] is a social event, an affirmation of a community, and it’s also, in some small way, the surrender of the isolated individual to the feeling of belonging to a larger tribe” (p. 72). The sociality of performance is what drives many composers and performers. Such belonging is pleasurable for all involved. It can be cathartic. It can be enlivening. Of course, we cannot confuse our liturgies with concerts, but certainly the pleasure of belonging is something that we who proclaim to be the Body of Christ can relate to. This might be a fun way to begin to think about our liturgical gatherings.

The next three chapters, “Technology Shapes Music: Analog,” “Technology Shapes Music: Digital,” and “In the Recording Studio” are a sketch of the history of the recording industry. Byrne’s focus is on how music making changes as technology does. Who makes music, who listens and how they listen changed radically after the invention of recording technology and the advent of electricity. Communities made music differently and, as such, came together as community differently. Though Byrne picks and chooses, his final conclusions are not unfounded. Also, some of his insights will be very familiar to church leaders. Though Byrne’s focus is upon the music industry, its challenges provide another angle to understanding our own institutional and communal struggles as religious bodies.

“How to Make a Scene” is a how-to guide for those who want to own a music venue. It is very specific to making music, but it does not take much imagination to draw parallels for congregations. How do we nurture connection? What spaces to we choose? What needs to be present in the surrounding neighborhoods to create a vibrant community?

In “Amateurs,” Byrne addresses issues of Capitalism and its specific tendency of creating passive consumers. Innovation keeps industry alive, but Capitalism itself appears to thrive when very little innovation is present. Consumption is the needed human posture. As technology appears to broaden the opportunities for making music, innovation and consumption appear to be seeking a new balance.

In “Harmonia Mundi,” Byrne outlines some familiar meaning-making systems and their relationships to music. How does music function? What are its physics and how have human beings made meaning with the same? He is quite happy to push against attempts to assign dogmatics to musical meaning while at the same time proclaiming music’s power to move us and communicate deep and complex meaning.

If you are a music fan, you will find this book intellectually stimulating, humorous, and inspiring. If you are interested in broadening your understanding of institutional forms of meaning-making beyond religious life, this book is for you, too. Byrne has much timely wisdom to share.

Tripp Hudgins is a PhD student at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; a preaching pastor, Baptist cantor, liturgiologist, ecumenist, writer of articles, ethnomusicologist (hon.), and grateful husband, his work is an exploration of sonic theology, mandodoxy, found objects (such as grace, time, timbre, or other holy scrap), and some good old fashioned sangin’. He blogs at

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Alban Learning 

Practical, immediately useful concrete steps and resources
for effective staff supervision
in large congregations.

Stepping up to Staffing and Supervision in Large Congregations  

Beaumont_HIGHRES Leader:  Susan Beaumont, Alban Consultant and author

Location:  Marywood Retreat Center, Jacksonville, FL

Date:  March 25-27, 2014