How architecture helped music evolve | David Byrne


This is the venue where, as a young man, some of the music that I wrote was first performed. It was, remarkably, a pretty good sounding room. With all the uneven walls and all the crap everywhere, it actually sounded pretty good. This is a song that was recorded there. (Music) This is not Talking Heads, in the picture anyway. (Music: “A Clean Break (Let’s Work)” by Talking Heads) So the nature of the room meant that words could be understood. The lyrics of the songs could be pretty much understood. The sound system was kind of decent. And there wasn’t a lot of reverberation in the room. So the rhythms could be pretty intact too, pretty concise. Other places around the country had similar rooms. This is Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. The music was in some ways different, but in structure and form, very much the same. The clientele behavior was very much the same too. And so the bands at Tootsie’s or at CBGB’s had to play loud enough — the volume had to be loud enough to overcome people falling down, shouting out and doing whatever else they were doing. Since then, I’ve played other places that are much nicer. I’ve played the Disney Hall here and Carnegie Hall and places like that. And it’s been very exciting. But I also noticed that sometimes the music that I had written, or was writing at the time, didn’t sound all that great in some of those halls. We managed, but sometimes those halls didn’t seem exactly suited to the music I was making or had made. So I asked myself: Do I write stuff for specific rooms? Do I have a place, a venue, in mind when I write? Is that a kind of model for creativity? Do we all make things with a venue, a context, in mind? Okay, Africa. (Music: “Wenlenga” / Various artists) Most of the popular music that we know now has a big part of its roots in West Africa. And the music there, I would say, the instruments, the intricate rhythms, the way it’s played, the setting, the context, it’s all perfect. It all works perfect. The music works perfectly in that setting. There’s no big room to create reverberation and confuse the rhythms. The instruments are loud enough that they can be heard without amplification, etc., etc. It’s no accident. It’s perfect for that particular context. And it would be a mess in a context like this. This is a gothic cathedral. (Music: “Spem In Alium” by Thomas Tallis) In a gothic cathedral, this kind of music is perfect. It doesn’t change key, the notes are long, there’s almost no rhythm whatsoever, and the room flatters the music. It actually improves it. This is the room that Bach wrote some of his music for. This is the organ. It’s not as big as a gothic cathedral, so he can write things that are a little bit more intricate. He can, very innovatively, actually change keys without risking huge dissonances. (Music: “Fantasia On Jesu, Mein Freunde” by Johann S. Bach) This is a little bit later. This is the kind of rooms that Mozart wrote in. I think we’re in like 1770, somewhere around there. They’re smaller, even less reverberant, so he can write really frilly music that’s very intricate — and it works. (Music: “Sonata in F,” KV 13, by Wolfgang A. Mozart) It fits the room perfectly. This is La Scala. It’s around the same time, I think it was built around 1776. People in the audience in these opera houses, when they were built, they used to yell out to one another. They used to eat, drink and yell out to people on the stage, just like they do at CBGB’s and places like that. If they liked an aria, they would holler and suggest that it be done again as an encore, not at the end of the show, but immediately. (Laughter) And well, that was an opera experience. This is the opera house that Wagner built for himself. And the size of the room is not that big. It’s smaller than this. But Wagner made an innovation. He wanted a bigger band. He wanted a little more bombast, so he increased the size of the orchestra pit so he could get more low-end instruments in there. (Music: “Lohengrin / Prelude to Act III” by Richard Wagner) Okay. This is Carnegie Hall. Obviously, this kind of thing became popular. The halls got bigger. Carnegie Hall’s fair-sized. It’s larger than some of the other symphony halls. And they’re a lot more reverberant than La Scala. Around the same, according to Alex Ross who writes for the New Yorker, this kind of rule came into effect that audiences had to be quiet — no more eating, drinking and yelling at the stage, or gossiping with one another during the show. They had to be very quiet. So those two things combined meant that a different kind of music worked best in these kind of halls. It meant that there could be extreme dynamics, which there weren’t in some of these other kinds of music. Quiet parts could be heard that would have been drowned out by all the gossiping and shouting. But because of the reverberation in those rooms like Carnegie Hall, the music had to be maybe a little less rhythmic and a little more textural. (Music: “Symphony No. 8 in E Flat Major” by Gustav Mahler) This is Mahler. It looks like Bob Dylan, but it’s Mahler. That was Bob’s last record, yeah. (Laughter) Popular music, coming along at the same time. This is a jazz band. According to Scott Joplin, the bands were playing on riverboats and clubs. Again, it’s noisy. They’re playing for dancers. There’s certain sections of the song — the songs had different sections that the dancers really liked. And they’d say, “Play that part again.” Well, there’s only so many times you can play the same section of a song over and over again for the dancers. So the bands started to improvise new melodies. And a new form of music was born. (Music: “Royal Garden Blues” by W.C. Handy / Ethel Waters) These are played mainly in small rooms. People are dancing, shouting and drinking. So the music has to be loud enough to be heard above that. Same thing goes true for — that’s the beginning of the century — for the whole of 20th-century popular music, whether it’s rock or Latin music or whatever. [Live music] doesn’t really change that much. It changes about a third of the way into the 20th century, when this became one of the primary venues for music. And this was one way that the music got there. Microphones enabled singers, in particular, and musicians and composers, to completely change the kind of music that they were writing. So far, a lot of the stuff that was on the radio was live music, but singers, like Frank Sinatra, could use the mic and do things that they could never do without a microphone. Other singers after him went even further. (Music: “My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker) This is Chet Baker. And this kind of thing would have been impossible without a microphone. It would have been impossible without recorded music as well. And he’s singing right into your ear. He’s whispering into your ears. The effect is just electric. It’s like the guy is sitting next to you, whispering who knows what into your ear. So at this point, music diverged. There’s live music, and there’s recorded music. And they no longer have to be exactly the same. Now there’s venues like this, a discotheque, and there’s jukeboxes in bars, where you don’t even need to have a band. There doesn’t need to be any live performing musicians whatsoever, and the sound systems are good. People began to make music specifically for discos and for those sound systems. And, as with jazz, the dancers liked certain sections more than they did others. So the early hip-hop guys would loop certain sections. (Music: “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang) The MC would improvise lyrics in the same way that the jazz players would improvise melodies. And another new form of music was born. Live performance, when it was incredibly successful, ended up in what is probably, acoustically, the worst sounding venues on the planet: sports stadiums, basketball arenas and hockey arenas. Musicians who ended up there did the best they could. They wrote what is now called arena rock, which is medium-speed ballads. (Music: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2) They did the best they could given that this is what they’re writing for. The tempos are medium. It sounds big. It’s more a social situation than a musical situation. And in some ways, the music that they’re writing for this place works perfectly. So there’s more new venues. One of the new ones is the automobile. I grew up with a radio in a car. But now that’s evolved into something else. The car is a whole venue. (Music: “Who U Wit” by Lil’ Jon & the East Side Boyz) The music that, I would say, is written for automobile sound systems works perfectly on it. It might not be what you want to listen to at home, but it works great in the car — has a huge frequency spectrum, you know, big bass and high-end and the voice kind of stuck in the middle. Automobile music, you can share with your friends. There’s one other kind of new venue, the private MP3 player. Presumably, this is just for Christian music. (Laughter) And in some ways it’s like Carnegie Hall, or when the audience had to hush up, because you can now hear every single detail. In other ways, it’s more like the West African music because if the music in an MP3 player gets too quiet, you turn it up, and the next minute, your ears are blasted out by a louder passage. So that doesn’t really work. I think pop music, mainly, it’s written today, to some extent, is written for these kind of players, for this kind of personal experience where you can hear extreme detail, but the dynamic doesn’t change that much. So I asked myself: Okay, is this a model for creation, this adaptation that we do? And does it happen anywhere else? Well, according to David Attenborough and some other people, birds do it too — that the birds in the canopy, where the foliage is dense, their calls tend to be high-pitched, short and repetitive. And the birds on the floor tend to have lower pitched calls, so that they don’t get distorted when they bounce off the forest floor. And birds like this Savannah sparrow, they tend to have a buzzing (Sound clip: Savannah sparrow song) type call. And it turns out that a sound like this is the most energy efficient and practical way to transmit their call across the fields and savannahs. Other birds, like this tanager, have adapted within the same species. The tananger on the East Coast of the United States, where the forests are a little denser, has one kind of call, and the tananger on the other side, on the west (Sound clip: Scarlet tanager song) has a different kind of call. (Sound clip: Scarlet tanager song) So birds do it too. And I thought: Well, if this is a model for creation, if we make music, primarily the form at least, to fit these contexts, and if we make art to fit gallery walls or museum walls, and if we write software to fit existing operating systems, is that how it works? Yeah. I think it’s evolutionary. It’s adaptive. But the pleasure and the passion and the joy is still there. This is a reverse view of things from the kind of traditional Romantic view. The Romantic view is that first comes the passion and then the outpouring of emotion, and then somehow it gets shaped into something. And I’m saying, well, the passion’s still there, but the vessel that it’s going to be injected into and poured into, that is instinctively and intuitively created first. We already know where that passion is going. But this conflict of views is kind of interesting. The writer, Thomas Frank, says that this might be a kind of explanation why some voters vote against their best interests, that voters, like a lot of us, assume, that if they hear something that sounds like it’s sincere, that it’s coming from the gut, that it’s passionate, that it’s more authentic. And they’ll vote for that. So that, if somebody can fake sincerity, if they can fake passion, they stand a better chance of being selected in that way, which seems a little dangerous. I’m saying the two, the passion, the joy, are not mutually exclusive. Maybe what the world needs now is for us to realize that we are like the birds. We adapt. We sing. And like the birds, the joy is still there, even though we have changed what we do to fit the context. Thank you very much. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “How architecture helped music evolve | David Byrne

  1. @leconfidant Thanks for suggesting that album – I just picked it up and gave it a quick listen. I won't say it's my new fave but it's certainly provocative. I thought I heard hints of everything from New Wave to Yoko Kanno… I wonder how many artists this album influenced! Speaking of which, you might like Downtime by the Kleptones – it's a little less ambient, but similar in tone and full of interesting samples.

  2. He's not a very good speaker to be honest, a lot of his points were incoherent and unorganized, and he didn't really end the speech on point. Instead of summarizing how the environment evolves and inspires music, he spent minutes on whether people still have the same amount of passion and joy for music……………………. yeah.

  3. music changes with the times. sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think it just so happens that architecture, music, and other aspects change with the times. the just happen to go together.

  4. @lightandbeautiful The only agenda gay people have is to be treated as equals. Not berated by those with a homophobic agenda, like you.

  5. @lightandbeautiful And what the fuck does a homophobic rant have to do with a lecture on music? Idiot troll.

  6. David, was it really necessary to relate that one tribal song to all of Africa? If you tell us the specific country/area, you help people understand that not every single one of those billion people are the same, which is an unfortunate bias many of us Americans have.

  7. You're not a very good typist to be honest. Your entire point is incoherent and disorganised. You didn't really end your post on point. Instead of writing a well put together sentence you spent minutes overusing commas. You also made the classic mistake of using more than three full stops whilst trying to make a "…" point at the end of your post. "Yeah" should also have began with a capital letter.

  8. I've learned three things from your paragraph of drivel. The first is that you write at a third grade level. Not once did you use a comma, I'm guessing you don't know how. The second thing you showed me was that you don't understand when to use the past participle verb form. The last thing I learned was that it took you several minutes to read my comment. Also, I've edited published books and doctorate level research papers, and I speak several languages. You're just an internet smart-ass.

  9. Your first sentence should have ended with a colon.
    When I said "you spent minutes using overusing commas" (which you did) that meant that you spent minutes typing. It does not mean that I spent minutes reading your badly put together comment.

    I don't speak several languages. I do however know that speaking several languages does not mean you know how to form sentences. (Unless English isn't your first language, in that case I severely apologize and take back everything I have said so far.)

  10. English isn't my first language and I still write better than you. I have no idea how many thousands of youtube comments I've written, because most are lost and buried forever. It would be dumb to spend lots of time writing and proofreading each one in case a self-righteous troll wants to start a pissing contest. Besides which, you complain about non-issues. Everyone knows that bitching on YouTube about 4+ periods in an ellipses means you're sitting on a spork………. suck it douche-bag.

  11. really enjoyed the summary of this…..very important point from a weird genius fae dumbarton (scotland)….fk all politicians

  12. the problem i have is that what music could be played in these environments. could glenn branca, michael nyman or phill niblock write music for these environments? or ligeti? allan holdsworth? kraftwerk? it is a dumb premise, i have read the "how music works" book and i just don't get it. i agree with 50% of what he says. havng said that, i want $15 bucks back

  13. He mentioned Tootsie's! *heart flutter* (One of the few Nashvegas spots I actually miss.) And everything else he "mentions" is badass, too. <3 Such a great Ted Talk all around, but especially for us audiophiles here! *keeps gushing*

  14. Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine aaaaaaaaaaaalmost saved the 80s.

  15. Absolutely right avedic. Electronics are just instruments as are guitars and drums. Where I might have some sympathy the electronica naysayers is when the human is taken out of the equation or human creativity is minimalised and the computer composes.

  16. Very interesting talk!! Wonderfil examples and a believeable central idea – oh course the form and context predate the passion and inspiration – it's the same in poetry, you have a set form (sonnet, gazale) and pour your passion into that channel. What I didn't get was the point about politics and Thomas Frank, seemed irrelevant

  17. This is so interesting. But I think perhaps the instrument that the artist has at his disposal is even more important than the context within which the music is being created. As determining a factor as the context it, the tool(s) being used are decidedly more so.

  18. How is I know he is a liberal? He takes a talk about something I was interesting in and ends it with political propaganda. Jerk The notion that people vote against their own interests is a liberal line about poor conservatives who are too stupid to vote for big gov handouts. And is he aware that the likes of Clinton and Obama are masters at faking passion and lying to get votes.

  19. Who cares what his political affiliation is? If this is a topic that truly interests you, glean from it what you will, and ignore the rest.

  20. somewhat complicated. Thought i was understanding it all until the end where he leaped from architecture to birds. Too much ideas in this genuis man's head. Try watching his movie.

  21. An interesting discussion from Talking Heads, David Byrne, about the connection between music and architecture. Makes you wonder where music will go to next, maybe it will become more interactive and become highly personalised.

  22. I'm listening to "How Music Works" books on tape 2.0. Terrific reader, sounds much like David, a little less exclamatory maybe, but certainly one of the best readings and thus consistent with best books of the year, along with Mivchael Lewis. It inspired me to plug my old Gibson J160-e into a loop station I purchased many years ago in Oakland next door to a cannabis club. My own ambient music…my own venue. Another True Story. 

  23. I really enjoyed the musical examples that he provides. Does anyone know what the pieces he uses are?

  24. Apart from the intelligent content about architecture, the part about U2 stadium rock is just so funny…

    "I'm an ordinary guy / Burning down the House"
    As Byrne once wrote about Architecture and Music.

  25. so he got me looking at the wall of the room I'm sitting in, thinking about the color of paint, can I do something with that color artistically?

  26. As a musician I really love conversations about music. It would be fun to sit down with David Byrne, have drinks and geek out on music.

  27. I love David Byrne, since the last 70's ;-), and this lesson about architecture (or context) and music is a great lesson, a lectio magistralis! (y)

  28. absolutely amazingly, sooo intelligent. I never have thought of music in the way he describes. 50 yrs. old and still learning something new everyday.

  29. Great talk! Also found this talk inspiring about how home concerts change the way we as an audience behave and listen – https://youtu.be/Uf_1PiyVuPQ

  30. I don't know if Mr.Byrne reads any of these ramblings. But I- just some random internet person – would like to thank you for your contributions to the music industry in group and solo. Thank you good Sir for all your time devoted towards what seems to be a dying art form. You keep the gears turning in young minds , old minds and so on. Thank you.

  31. Please follow my architecture playlist on spotify :
    https://open.spotify.com/user/12143472920/playlist/23TTIULB3drR8JjJ4W3Btp?si=XKAvVfbtTwGab154eNGnXg

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