How Music Works by David Byrne, and Sweet Anticipation by David Huron
how music works by david byrne, and sweet anticipation by

How Music Works by David Byrne, and Sweet Anticipation by David Huron

1. Byrne

The other day I shared a passage from the book, How Music Works, by David Byrne, which motivated a long discussion about why we prefer familiarity in music and surprise in stories. I enjoyed Byrne’s book a lot—actually, it was much better than I’d anticipated, partly because I’d read other books on how music works and I’d been disappointed, partly because Byrne is a celebrity and his book had all these glowing endorsements, which gets me suspicious. It’s published by McSweeney’s, for chrissake, and even though McSweeney’s is wonderful—as far as I’m concerned, their entire existence through the end of time is justified by publishing Jim Stallard’s article, “No justice, no foul”—but, still, they’re so insufferably smug . . . so I didn’t want to like this book by Byrne, but I did.

Here’s one bit:

I [Byrne] was beginning to see that theatricality wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was part of life in much of the world, and not necessarily phony either. I guess I was primed to receive this new way of looking at performance, but I quickly absorbed that it was all right to make a show that didn’t pretend to be “natural.” . . . I decided that maybe it was OK to wear costumes and put on a show. It didn’t imply insincerity at all; in fact, this kind of practice performance was all around, if one only looked at it.

And another:

That sounds really cool! I want to figure out how to adapt this to create a student-participation activity for a statistics class.


Academic talks are like that!

And here are some thought-provoking lines:

Making music is like constructing a machine whose function is to dredge up emotions in performer and listener alike. Some people . . . would prefer to see music as an expression of emotion rather than a generator of it, to believe in the artist as someone with something to say. I’m beginning to think of the artist as someone who is adept at making devices that tap into our shared psychological makeup and that trigger the deeply moving parts we have in common. . . .

The online magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos. This wasn’t intended as a complement—though, to be honest, it’s not that far from the truth. Contrary to their insinuation, I am fairly picky about who I collaborate with, but I am also willing to work with people you might not expect me to. . . .

The unwritten rule in these remote collaborations [here, he’s talking about a project he did with Brian Eno] is, for me, “Leave the other person’s stuff alone as much as you possibly can.” You work with what you’re given . . . Accepting that half of the creative decision making has already been done has the effect of bypassing a lot of endless branching . . . I didn’t ever have to think about what direction to take musically—that train had already left the station, and my job was to see where it wanted to go . . .

[In another project] I was partly helped by a “rule” in theater that the author (or songwriter) has absolute say—his or her words can’t be changed. The text is considered sacred. So I knew that if I tried a suggestion and hated it, I could always demand, in the nicest possible way, that the song be returned to its original condition. This implicit power gave me a kind of freedom. I could be flexible and accommodating to all the suggestions, and I could try things I wasn’t sure of, that I maybe even had doubts about, knowing that they weren’t going to be set in stone. Instead of making me conservative, my hidden power encouraged me to take risks.

Byrne writes about creativity and how he tries to “turn off the internal censor”:

Sometimes sitting at a desk trying to do this doesn’t work. I never have writer’s block, but sometimes things do slow down. My conscious mind might be thinking too much—and at this point, one wants surprises and weirdness from the depths. Some techniques help in that regard. For instance, I’ll carry a small micro recorder and go jogging on the West Side, recording phrases that match the song’s meter as they occur to me. On the rare occasions when I’m driving a car, I can do the same thing . . . Basically anything that occupies part of the conscious mind and distracts it works. The idea is to allow the chthonic material freedom it needs to gurgle up. To distract the gatekeepers.

I know what he means! I can get all stuck but then I hope on the bike to go somewhere and I fill up with thoughts, so much so that I need to stop and scrawl them in my boekje before I forget them all. The hard part is to go back later and work things out more systematically. Also, I like Byrne in part because he rides a bike and has lines like, “Hoving did ride a bike, so he can’t have been all about fancy art.”

And this:

Canadian composer and music teacher R. Murray Schafer originated the concept of the soundscape. . . . Schafer’s pedagogy begins with trying to create awareness, to help students hear their sonic environment:

What was the last sound you heard before I clapped my hands?
What was the highest sound you heard in the past ten minutes? What was the loudest? How many airplanes have you heard today?
What was the most interesting sound you heard this morning?
Make a collection of disappearing or lost sounds, sounds that formed part of the sonic environment but can no longer be heard today.

I like this. It reminds me of statistics diaries. The specificity of these questions could help get the ball rolling.

Byrne writes:

[Marshall McLuhan] claims that in a visual universe one begins to think in a linear fashion, one thing following another along a timeline, rather than everything existing right now, everywhere, in the moment. . . .

Hmmmm . . . that seems like the opposite of what’s happening! It’s sound that comes in a time sequence. A visual image is all there at once.

Byrne asks:

Why is it that Satie’s compositions, Brian Eno’s ambient music, or the minimal spaced-out work of Morton Feldman all seem fairly cool, while Muzak is deemed abhorrent? Is it simply because Muzak alters songs that are already familiar to everyone? I think it’s something else. The problem is that this music is intended to dull your awareness, like being force-fed tranquilizers.

Actually, I think Muzak’s use of very familiar songs is of the things that makes it so annoying; see discussion in my post from a couple years ago, “The revelation came while hearing a background music version of Iron Butterfly’s ‘In A Gadda Da Vida’ at a Mr. Steak restaurant in Colorado.”

2. Huron

My post motivated by Byrne got lots of interesting comments, including this one from RulerFrank:

I have exactly the book for you! It’s called “Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation” by David Huron. To quote the Goodreads blurb:

Huron proposes that emotions evoked by expectation involve five functionally distinct response systems: reaction responses (which engage defensive reflexes); tension responses (where uncertainty leads to stress); prediction responses (which reward accurate prediction); imagination responses (which facilitate deferred gratification); and appraisal responses (which occur after conscious thought is engaged). For real-world events, these five response systems typically produce a complex mixture of feelings.

Or in other words, the key to resolving your paradox is that there are different types of “expectation”.

I have read the book in its entirety and couldn’t recommend it enough. One of the best books that I’ve ever read.

I was motivated by this recommendation to get a copy of Huron’s book from the same source that supplied Byrne’s: that’s right, the local public library.

Sweet Anticipation is excellent, lots of amazing (to me) and sensible ideas. Like many nonfiction books I’ve read nowadays, though, about 1/3 of the way through it starts to get boring and repetitive. Ironic, huh? given the subject of the book. In contrast, David Byrne’s book, though much more shallow, is more readable and interesting all the way through. I wish Huron had an editor. Every time I encountered the phrase, “Notice that,” I wanted to scream. Overall, though, it’s a wonderful book, and I really admire how he kept all that technical musical detail while still making it followable by someone like me who can’t read music and doesn’t know the chords etc.

Go to the source link

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