The Marginalian
The Marginalian

David Byrne on How Music and Creativity Work

“Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.'”

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this week: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

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, 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 desires 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 180º 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 usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional 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.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few kew 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. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.


So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.


We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “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.”)

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons

Published September 13, 2012




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