The World in Six Songs

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

By Louise Fabiani

A review of The World In Six Songs: How The Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

Published on October 1, 2008

The World In Six Songs: How The Musical Brain Created Human Nature
Daniel J. Levitin

Viking Canada
$32
cloth
356pp
978-0-670-06788-6

Chances are that on any given day, you have been an intentional or unintentional audience to dozens of musical compositions, fragmented or entire. Clothing stores entice shoppers with Top 40 rap, romance, and rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz and blues issue from bars and hip bistros. Malls and many workplaces pipe in background music. And even if you don’t own a personal listening device, you will know what is stored on one if a youth sitting within a car length away on the bus has his favourites cranked up enough to pour out his headphones. Many of us not only enjoy music, but find it essential to a good life – it is part of what makes us human.

In The World in Six Songs, music-producer-turned-McGill-psychologist Daniel J. Levitin extends his riff on the relationship between music and cognitive development begun in his debut book, This is Your Brain on Music. This time, he focuses on music’s role in the evolution of human sociability. In each chapter dedicated to one of the six songs, Levitin ranges widely – from work he has been personally involved with, and people in the business he has known, to the nitty-gritty of musical creation, interpretation, and appreciation. Although they are distinct enough to deserve separate discussions and examples, the six songs are united by their effect on the brain, causing it to release serotonin and oxytocin during playing, singing, and/or listening to music, with or without accompanying rhythmic movement, like dance. The very pleasure we derive from music proves that evolution has “meant” us to feel that way. Music has helped a very social animal like us to survive by facilitating human cooperation.

Friendship not only connotes the bond between actual friends, but the connection amongst many people in a group, such as boy scouts around a campfire. Serotonin increases feelings of trust, bringing participants closer together. Many kinds of compositions commemorate joyful occasions, or provide safe outlets for excessive energy. Music also provides comfort – think of the universality of the lullaby; even crying to a sad song can be therapeutic. Songs can also transmit knowledge, since we remember things better if they are given a tuneful rendition. No religion would be complete without devotional hymns and songs of praise, mourning, and rites of passage. Of course, more songs are about love – primarily romantic – than about anything else. In fact, most songs could be said to be about love: of a person or group; of truth (e.g., in a protest anthem); of God; of Nature; of life itself. Those amazing brain chemicals kick in each and every time, and the magic begins.

Knowing his readership, Levitin spares us litanies of brain studies or tongue-tying nomenclature. He leans closer to his roots in the industry than to his more recent branching into science. (Actually, to this fan of things neurological, the fascinating brain-related data could have been heftier.) Anecdotes from his time as a musician and producer pepper the text, often to substantiate his evolutionary explanations. Not too many psychologists can call upon the likes of Sting and Joni Mitchell to support their hypotheses! As useful as these informed opinions are, the manner in which they are introduced tends to smack of name-dropping.

This is Your Brain on Music became a bestseller. The World in Six Songs has all the earmarks of being rushed to print while the iron was hot: a smattering of avoidable proofing errors, stylistic tics, and redundant discussions. The book succeeds more as a love song to music, and its importance to human society, than as a piece of popular science. mRb

Louise Fabiani is a Montreal-based freelance writer. Her poetry chapbook Cryptic Dangers was recently published by Alfred Gustav Press.

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