David Byrne of Talking Heads Gives ‘TED Talk’ on Importance of Acoustics

By Steve Nagel on Aug 10, 2015 10:41 PM EDT

In his TED seminar, Talking Heads frontman David Byrne exhibits an acoustical awareness that might surprise his fans. Stemming from self-awareness in his own music that suggested mixed success across diverse music venues, Byrne stresses the importance of acoustics and characterizes acoustical engineering as "sound architecture," demystifying the long-held views of audiophiles that, talent aside, acoustics can make or break a performance. One of David Byrne's boldest contentions in the TED seminar is that the physical structure of the music venue defines the music performed there, as opposed to the music defining the structure.

David Byrne's illustrations of the concept of "sound architecture" are among the most interesting parts of the video. Playing the part of music historian, he walks us through genre after genre, describing the origin of the movement, the circumstances surrounding its development, and the environment in which it was performed. For example, African folk music is to the open savannah as the choir is to the cathedral, and chamber music to, well...the chamber. In each case, these styles are revealed to be ideally suited to their environment.

Pulling initially from movements that were highly regionalized (which limited their opportunities to be heard in disagreeable environments), Byrne then shifts to the recording age, exhibiting samples of vinyl whispers and speaking-volume crooners and argues how they were at first tailored for nightclub acoustics but later for the "architecture" of a living room stereo. Modern marketing lends further credence to this argument, as remarkable sound engineering advancements like 3D binaural technology suggest a conscious strategy behind Surround Sound reproduction for headphone-only consumption.

Finally, David Byrne addresses his own music. Often associated with the jerky rhythms and oddball subjects of New Wave, Byrne self-identifies the Talking Heads' acoustical home as the "cave-like" venues of the 1980s Bowery, environments where sound wouldn't actively reverberate against the compact wall-space. In stark contrast to this environment is a sports arena or bandshell, where a conspicuous lack of wall-space leaves musical accents open to undue dispersion...or, as Byrne would have it, under-appreciation.

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TagsDavid Byrne, TED Talk, Importance of acoustics, sound architecture, Talking Heads

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