about 350 words
In the reading found here
Actions by David Byrne, legendary frontman of the genre-defying
band The Talking Heads, form his book How Music Works, he
uses music to address the role of context in creativity in general.
I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That
insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted,
sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an
insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom,
which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior
emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the
creative urge will brook no accommodation.
This is true in any of the arts, not just music. Context is the
setting, venue, environment, political climate, situation, cultural
milieu, or any other kind of external situation from which a work of
In the discussion below, reflect on Byrne’s ideas about context.
Leave your own comment or respond to others’. Consider
• How would you describe the context in which you work,
does your context effect what you make?
• How do you respond to your surroundings?
• What is your venue? （Home and company）
• Since COVID-19 effects every aspect of life, how is the
context of how we see and make creative work changing?
How would you describe our current context? How is the
idea of a venue different now?
had an xtremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight
is that context largely determines what is written, pair.tted, sculpted,
sung, or performed. That do sn’t ound like much of an insight, but
it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains
that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling
of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation,
that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted
narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or· her
eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t
exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire
and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to
be three minutes and twelve seconds-nothing more, nothing less. This is
the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of
creation is almost 180° from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and
instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.
Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s
work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes
something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation
must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usu-
ally find a way in, and the tailoring process-form being tailored to fit a given
DAVID BYRNE I 13
context-is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice
it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention . The emo-
tional story-“something to get off my chest”-still gets told, but its form is
guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely
the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we
don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.
In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating
work that fits the venue available to us. That holds true for the other arts as
well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just
as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall
(but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software
“makes” the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more ven-
ues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of
the same. After a while the form of the work that predominates in these spaces
is taken for granted-of course we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.
In the photo below you can see the room at CBGB where some of the music
I wrote was first heard. A Try to ignore the lovely decor and think of the size
and shape of the space. Next to that is a band performing. 0 The sound in that
club was remarkably good-the amount of crap scattered everywhere, the
furniture, the bar, the crooked uneven walls and looming ceiling made for
both great sound absorption and uneven acoustic reflections-qualities one
might spend a fortune to recreate in a recording studio. Well, these qualities
were great for this particular music. Because of the lack of reverberation,
one could be fairly certain, for example, that details of one’s music would
be heard-and given the size ofthe place, intimate gestures and expressions
would be seen and appreciated as well, at least from the waist up. What-
ever went on below the waist was generally invisible, obscured by the half-
standing, half-sitting audience. Most of the audience would have had no
idea that the guy in that photo was rolling around on the stage-he would
have simply disappeared from view.
This New York club was initially meant to be a bluegrass and country
venue-like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. The singer George Jones
knew the number of steps from the stage door of the Grand Ole Opry to
the back door of Tootsie’s-thirty-seven. Charlie Pride gave Tootsie Bess a
hatpin to use on rowdy customers.
Below is a photo of some performers at Tootsie’s Y Physically, the two
clubs are almost identical. The audience behavior was pretty much the same
in both places, too. 0
The musical differences between the two venues are less significant than
one might think-structurally, the music emanating from them was pretty
much identical, even though once upon a time a country music audience at
Tootsie’s would have hated punk rock, and vice versa. When Talking Heads
first played in Nashville, the announcer declaimed, “Punk rock comes to
Nashville! For the first, and probably the last time!”
Both of these places are bars. People drink, make new friends, shout, and
fall down, so the performers had to play loud enough to be heard above that-
and so it was, and is. (FYI: the volume in Tootsie’s is much louder than it usu-
ally was in CBGB.)
Looking at this scant evidence, I asked myself, to what extent was I writing
music specifically, and maybe unconsciously, to fit these places? (I didn’t know
about Tootsie’s when I began to write songs.) So I did a little digging tb see if
other types of music might have also been written to fit their acoustic contexts.
WE’RE ALL AFRICANS
ercussive music carries well outdoors, where people might be both dancing
and milling about. The extremely intricate and layered rhythms that are
typical of this music don’t get sonically mashed together as they would in, say,
a school gymnasium. Who would invent, play, or persevere with such rhythms
if they sounded terrible? No one. Not for a minute. This music doesn’t need
amplification, either-though that did come along later.
The North American musicologist Alan Lomax argued in his book Folk Song
Style and Culture that the structure of this music and others of its type-essen-
tially leaderless ensembles-emanates from and mirrors egalitarian societies,
but suffice it to say that’s a whole other level of context.’ I love his theory that
music and dance styles are metaphors for the social and sexual mores of the soci-
eties they emerge from, but that’s not the story I aim to focus on in this book.
Some say that the instruments being played in the photoE at the top of the
next page were all derived from easily available local materials, and therefore it
was convenience (with a sly implication of unsophistication) that determined
the nature of the music. This assessment implies that these instruments and
this music were the best this culture could do given the circumstances. But I
would argue that the instruments were carefully fashioned, selected, tailored,
and played to best suit the physical, acoustic, and social situation. The music
perfectly fits the place where it is heard, sonically and structurally. It is abso-
lutely ideally suited for this situation-the music, a living thing, evolved to
fit the available niche.
That same music would turn into sonic mush in a cathedral.F Western music
in the Middle Ages was performed in these stone-walled gothic cathedrals, and
in architecturally similar monasteries and cloisters. The reverberation time in
those spaces is very long-more than four seconds in most cases-so a note
sung a few seconds ago hangs in the air and becomes part of the present sonic
landscape. A composition with shifting musical keys would inevitably invite
1h I HOW MUSIC WORKS
dissonance as notes overlapped and clashed-a
real sonic pileup. So what evolved, what sounds
best in this kind of space, is modal in structure-
often using very long notes. Slowly evolving mel-
odies that eschew key changes work beautifully
and reinforce the otherworldly ambience. Not
only does this kind of music work well acous-
tically, it helps establish what we have come
to think of as a spiritual aura. Africans, whose
spiritual music is often rhythmically complex,
may not associate the music that originates in
these spaces with spirituality; they may simply
hear it as being blurry and indistinct. Mytholo-
gist Joseph Campbell, however, thought that
the temple and cathedral are attractive because
they spatially and acoustically recreate the cave,
where early humans first expressed their spiritual
yearnings. Or at least that’s where we think they
primarily expressed these feelings, as almost all
traces of such activities have disappeared.
It’s usually assumed that much Western
medieval music was harmonically “simple” (hav-
ing few key changes) because composers hadn’t
yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In
this context there would be no need or desire to
include complex harmonies, as they would have
sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they
did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there
is such a thing as “progress” when it comes to
music, and that music is “better” now than it
used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of
those who live in the present. It is a myth. Crea-
tivity doesn’t “improve.”
Bach did a lot of his playing and writing in
the early 17oo’s in a church that was smaller
than a gothic cathedral. G As you can imagine,
DAVID BYRNE l17
there was already an organ there, and the sound was reverberant, though not
as much as in the giant gothic cathedrals.
The music Bach wrote for such spaces sounded good in there; the space
made the single instrument, the pipe organ, sound larger, and it also had the
nice effect of softening any mistakes as he doodled up and down the scales,
as was his wont. Modulating into different keys in the innovative way he did
was risky business in these venues. Previously, composers for these rooms
stayed in the same key, so they could be all washy and droney, and if the room
sounded like an empty swimming pool, then it posed no problem.
I recently went to a Balkan music festival in Brooklyn in a hall that was
almost identical to the church pictured on the previous page. The brass bands
were playing in the middle of the floor, and folks were dancing in circles
around them. The sound was pretty reverberant-not ideal for the compli-
cated rhythms of Balkan music, but then again, that music didn’t develop in
rooms like the one I was in.
In the late 1700s, Mozart would perform his compositions at events in his
patrons’ palaces in grand, but not gigantic rooms. 1·1• 1 At least initially, he didn’t
write expecting his music to be heard in symphony halls, which is where they’re
often performed today, but rather in these smaller, more intimate venues . Rooms
like these would be filled with people whose bodies and elaborate dress would
deaden the sound, and that, combined with the frilly decor and their modest
size (when compared to cathedrals and even ordinary churches) meant that his
similarly frilly music could be heard clearly in all its intricate detail.
People could dance to it too. My guess is that in order to be heard above
the dancing, clamping feet, and gossiping, one might have had to figure out
how to make the music louder, and the only way to do this was to increase the
size of the orchestra, which is what happened.
Meanwhile, some folks around that same time were going to hear operas.
La Scala was built in 1776; the original orchestra section comprised a series
of booths or stalls, rather than the rows of seats that exist now.J People would
eat, drink, talk, and socialize during the performances-audience behavior, a
big part of music’s context, was very different back then. Back in the day, peo-
ple would socialize and holler ·out to one another during the performances .
They’d holler at the stage, too, for encores of the popular arias. If they liked a
tune, they wanted to hear it again-now! The vibe was more like CBGB than
your typical contemporary opera house.
La Scala and other opera venues of the time were also fairly compact-
more so than the big opera houses that now dominate much of Europe and
the United States. The depth of La Scala and many other opera houses of that
period is maybe like the Highline Ballroom or Irving Plaza in New York, but
La Scala is taller, with a larger stage. The sound in these opera houses is pretty
tight, too (unlike today’s larger halls). I’ve performed in some .of these old
opera venues, and if you don’t crank the volume too high, it works surpris-
ingly well for certain kinds of contemporary pop music.
Take a look at Bayreuth, the opera house Wagner had built for his own
music in the 187os.K You can see it’s not that huge. Not very much bigger
than La Scala. Wagner had the gumption to demand that this venue be built
to better accommodate the music he imagined-which didn’t mean there
was much more seating, as a practical-minded entrepeneur might insist on
today. It was the orchestral accommodations themselves that were enlarged.
He needed larger orchestras to conjure the requisite bombast. He had new and
larger brass instruments created too, and he also called for a larger bass sec-
tion, to create big orchestral effects.
Wagner in some ways doesn’t fit my model-his imagination and ego
seemed to be larger than the existing venues, so he was the exception who
didn’t accommodate. Granted, he was mainly pushing the boundaries of pre-
existing opera architecture, not inventing something from scratch. Once he
built this place, he more or less wrote for it and its particular acoustic qualities.
As time passed, symphonic music came to be performed in larger and
larger halls. That musical format, originally conceived for rooms in palaces
and the more modest-sized opera halls, was now somewhat unfairly being
asked to accommodate more reverberant spaces. Subsequent classical com-
posers therefore wrote music for those new halls, with their new sound,
and it was music that emphasized texture, and sometimes employed audio
shock and awe in order to reach the back row that was now farther away. They
needed to adapt, and adapt they did.
The music of Mahler and other later symphonic composers works well in
spaces like Carnegie Hall. L Groove music, percussive music featuring drums-
like what I do, for example-has a very hard time here. I’ve played at Carnegie
Hall a couple of times, and it can work, but it is far from ideal. I wouldn’t play
that music there again. I realized that sometimes the most prestigious place
doesn’t always work out best for your music. This acoustic barrier could be
viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out-
but we won’t go there, not yet.
At the same time that classical music was tucking itself into new venues, so too was popular music. In the early part of the last century, jazz devel-
oped alongside later classical music. This popular music was originally played
in bars, at funerals, and in whorehouses and joints where dancing was going
on. There was little reverberation in those spaces, and they weren’t that big,
so, as in CBGB, the groove could be strong and up front. M
It’s been pointed out by Scott Joplin and others that the origin of jazz solos
and improvisations was a pragmatic way of solving a problem that had emerged:
the “written” melody would run out while the musicians were playing, and in
order to keep a popular section continuing longer for the dancers who wanted to
keep moving, the players would jam over those chord changes while maintain-
ing the same groove. The musicians learned to stretch out and extend whatever
section of the tune was deemed popular. These improvisations and elongations
evolved out of necessity, and a new kind of music came into being.
By the mid-twentieth century, jazz had evolved into a kind of classical
music, often presented in concert halls, but if anyone’s been to a juke joint
or seen the Rebirth or Dirty Dozen brass bands at a place like the Glass
House in New Orleans, then you’ve seen lots of dancing to jazz. Its roots
are spiritual dance music. Yes, this is one kind of spiritual music that would
sound terrible in most cathedrals.
The instrumentation of jazz was also modified so that the music could be
heard over the sound of the dancers and the bar racket. Banjos were louder
than acoustic guitars, and trumpets were nice and loud, too. Until amplifica-
tion and microphones came into common use, the instruments written for
and played were adapted to fit the situation. The makeup of the bands, as well
as the parts the composers wrote, evolved to be heard.
Likewise, country music, blues, Latin music, and rock and roll were all
(originally) music to dance to, and they too had to be loud enough to be heard
above the chatter. Recorded music and amplification changed all that, but
when these forms jelled, such factors were just beginning to be felt.
DAVID BYRNE I 21
W ith classical music, not only did the venues change, but the behavior of the audiences did, too. Around 1900, according to music writer
Alex Ross, classical audiences were no longer allowed to shout, eat, and chat
during a performance. One was expected to sit immobile and listen with rapt
attention. Ross hints that this was a way of keeping the hoi polloi out of the
new symphony halls and opera houses.> (I guess it was assumed that the lower
classes were inherently noisy.) Music that in many instances used to be for
all was now exclusively for the elite. Nowadays, if someone’s phone rings or
a person so much as whispers to their neighbor during a classical concert, it
could stop the whole show.
This exclusionary policy affected the music being written, too-since no
one was talking, eating, or dancing anymore, the music could have extreme
dynamics. Composers knew that every detail would be heard, so very quiet
passages could now be written. Harmonically complex passages could be
appreciated as well. Much of twentieth-century classical music could only
work in (and was written for) these socially and acoustically restrictive spaces.
A new kind of music came into existence that didn’t exist previously-and
the future emergence and refining of recording technology would make this
music more available and ubiquitous. I do wonder how much of the audience’s
fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert
hall-it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own
liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.
Although the quietest harmonic and dynamic details and complexities
could now be heard, performing in these larger more reverberant halls meant
that rhythmically things got less distinct and much fuzzier-less African, one
might say. Even the jazz now played in these rooms became a kind of chamber
music. Certainly no one danced, drank, or l’iollered out “HeU,, yeah!” even if
it was Goodman, Ellington, or Marsalis (aying-bands that ertainly swing.
The smaller jazz clubs followed suit; no ·one dances anymore at the Blue Not
or Village Vanguard, though liquor is v ry quietly served.
One might conclude that removing he funky relaxed vibe from refi ned
American concert music was not accidentaL Separating the body from t h head
seems to have been an intended consequence-for anything to be se1ious, you
couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it. (Not that any kind of music is aimed
…. t unw Mll~lf’ wnn~s:
exclusively at either the body or head-that absolute demarcation is somewhat
of an intellectual and social construct.) Serious music, in this way of thinking,
is only absorbed and consumed above the neck. The regions below the neck
are socially and morally suspect. The people who felt this way and enforced
this way of encountering music probably didn’t take the wildly innovative and
sophisticated arrangements of mid -century tango orchestras seriously either.
The fact that it was wildly innovative and at the same time very danceable cre-
ated, for twentieth-century sophisticates, a kind of cognitive dissonance.
W ith the advent of recorded music in 1878, the nature of the places in which music was heard changed. Music now had to serve two very
different needs simultaneously. The phonograph box in the parlor became a
new venue; for many people, it replaced the concert hall or the club.
By the thirties, most people were listening to music either on radio or on
home phonographs.N People probably heard a greater quantity of tnusic, and a
greater variety, on these devices than they would ever hear in person in their
lifetimes. Music could now be completely free from any live context, or, more
properly, the context in which it was heard became the living room and the
jukebox-parallel alternatives to still-popular ballrooms and concert halls.
The performing musician was now expected to write and create for two
very different spaces: the live venue, and the device that could play a recording
or receive a transmission. Socially and acoustically, these spaces were worlds
apart. But the compositions were expected to be the same! An audience who
heard and loved a song on the radio naturally wanted to hear that same song at
the club or the concert hall.
These two demands seem unfair
to me. The performing skills, not
to mention the writing needs, the
instrumentation, and the acous-
tic properties for each venue are
completely different. Just as stage
actors often seem too loud and
demonstrative for audiences used
DAVID BYRNE I 23
to movie acting, the requirements of musical mediums are somewhat mutually
exclusive. What is best for one might work for the other, but it doesn’t always
work that way.
Performers adapted to this new tec h.nology. The microphones that recorded singers changed the way they sang and the way their instru-
ments were played. 0 Singers no longer~ad to have great lunJ’ ‘ to be success-
ful. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby w r pioneers when it c me to singing
“to the microphone.” They adjusted th ir vocal dynamics in ays that would
have been unheard of earlier. It might ll<(t seem that radica,l now, but croon-
ing was a new kind of singing back t h en . It wouldn’t,have worked without
Chet Baker even sang in a whisper, as did ]oao Gilberta, and millions fol-
lowed. To a listener, these guys are whispering like a lover, right into your ear,
getting completely inside your head. Music had never been experienced that
way before. Needless to say, without microphones this intimacy wouldn’t
have been heard at all.
Technology had turned the living room or any small bar with a jukebox into
a concert haW -and often there was dancing. Besides changing the acoustic
context, recorded music also allowed music venues to come into existence
without stages and often without any live musicians at all. D]s could play at
high school dances, folks could shove quarters into jukeboxes and dance in
the middle of the bar, and in living rooms the music came out of furniture.
Eventually venues evolved that were purposefully built to play only this kind
of performerless music-discos.o
Music written for contemporary discos, in my opinion, usually only works
in those social and physical spaces-it really works best on the incredible
sound systems that are often installed in those rooms. It feels stupid to
listen to club music at its intended volume at home, though people do it.
And, once again, it’s for dancing, as was early hip-hop, which emerged out
of dance clubs in the same way that jazz did-by extending sections of the
music so the dancers could show off and improvise. Once again the dancers
were changing the context, urging the music in new directions. R
I n the sixties the most successful pop music began to be performed in basketball arenas and stadiums, which tend to have terrible acoustics-
only a narrow range of music works at all in such environments. Steady-
state music (music with a consistent volume, more or less unchanging tex-
tures, and fairly simple pulsing rhythms) works best, and even then rarely.
The roar of metal works fine. Industrial music for industrial spaces. Stately
chord progressions might survive, but funk, for example, bounced off the
walls and floors and became chaotic. The groove got killed, t[10ugh some
funky acts persevered because these concerts were social gatherings, bond-
ing opportunities, and rituals as much as music events. Mostly the arenas
were filled with white kids-and the music was usually Wagnerian.
The gathered masses in sports arenas and stadiums demanded that the
music perform a different function-not only sonically but socially-than
what it had been asked to do on a record or in a club. The music those bands
ended up writing in response-arena rock-is written with that in mind:
rousing, stately anthems. To my ears it’s a soundtrack for a gathering, and
listening to it in other contexts recreates the memory or anticipation of that
gathering-a stadium in your head.
CONTEMPORARY MUSIC VENUES
here are the new music venues? Are there venues I’m still not acknowl-
edging that might be influencing how and what kind of music gets
written? Well, there is the interior of your car.s I’d argue that contemporary
hip-hop is written (or at least the music is) to be heard in cars with systems
like the one below. The massive volume seems to be more about sharing your
music with everyone, gratis! T In a sense, it’s a music of generosity. I’d say the
audio space in a car with these speakers forces a very different kind of com-
position. The music is bass heavy, but with a strong and precise high end as
well. Sonically, what’s in the middle? It’s the vocal, allocated a vacant sonic
space where not much else lives. In earlier pop music, the keyboards or gui-
tars or even violins often occupied much of this middle territory, and without
those things, the vocals rushed to fill the vacuum.
Hip-hop is unlike anything one could produce with acoustic instruments.
That umbilical cord has been cut. Liberated. The connection between the recorded
music and the live musician and performer is now a thing of the past. Although
this music may have emerged from dance-oriented early hip-hop (which, like
jazz, evolved by extending the breaks for dancers), it’s morphed into something
else entirely: music that sounds best in cars. People do dance in their cars, or they
try to. As big SUVs become less practical I foresee this music changing as well.
One other new music venue has arrived .U Presumably the MP3 player
shown below plays mainly Christian music. Private listening really took off
in 1979, with the popularity of the Walkman portable cassette player. Lis-
tening to music on a Walkman is a variation of the “sitting very still in a
concert hall” experience (there are no acoustic distractions), combined with
the virtual space (achieved by adding reverb and echo to the vocals and
instruments) that studio recording allows. With headphones on, you can
hear and appreciate extreme detail and subtlety, and the lack of uncontrol-
lable reverb inherent in hearing music in a live room means that rhythmic
material survives beautifully and completely intact; it doesn’t get blurred
or turned into sonic mush as it often does in a concert hall. You, and only
you, the audience of one, can hear a million tiny details, even with the com-
pression that MP3 technology adds to recordings. You can hear the singer’s
breath intake, their fingers on a guitar string. That said, extreme and sudden
dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player. As with dance
music one hundred years ago, it’s better to write music that maintains a
relatively constant volume for this tiny venue. Dynamically static but with
lots of details: that’s the directive here.
If there has been a compositional response to MP3s and the era of private
listening, I have yet to hear it. One would expect music that is essentially
a soothing flood of ambient moods as a way to relax and decompress, or
maybe dense and complex compositions that reward repeated playing and
attentive listening, maybe intimate or rudely erotic vocals that would be
inappropriate to blast in public but that you could enjoy privately. If any of
this is happening, I am unaware of it.
We’ve come full circle in many ways. The musical techniques of the Afri-
can Diaspora, the foundation of much of the contemporary world’s popular
music, with its wealth of interlocking and layered beats, works well acous-
tically in both the context of the
private listening experience and as
a framework for much contempo-
rary recorded music. African music
sounds the way it does because it
was meant to be played out in the
open (a form of steady-state music
loud enough to be heard outdoors
DAVID BYRNE I 27
above dancing and singing) but it turns out to also work well in the most
intimate of spaces-our inner ears. Yes, people do listen to Bach and Wagner
on iPods, but not too many people are writing new music like that, except
for film scores, where Wagnerian bombast works really well. If John Williams
wrote contemporary Wagner for Star Wars, then Bernard Herrmann wrote
contemporary Schoenberg for Psycho and other Hitchcock movies. The sym-