Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Book Review: The World in Six Songs by Daniel J. Levitin

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature is a fascinating book with the premise that there are six functions of song (music) in human culture.  He backs up his ideas with scientific data, and he frequently uses tales from his own experience as a musician and record producer (in his pre-research scientist days).  He works to answer the questions “Why is there music?” and “Are we musical because our brains made us that way, or are our brains adapted to music because we are musical?”  He explores the social advantages to being a musical being and through the six categories of song, he presents a very cohesive and coherent argument.

The six categories of song, as posited by Levitin, are: Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion and Love.  Songs of Friendship are songs of camaraderie, togetherness and creating a functional large group.  The selective advantages (Levitin talks of evolutionary advantages) of being in a group that works together for a collective whole are obvious.  Society as we know it could not exist if we were unable to get along within larger collectives of people.  A big way of getting a group to work as a unit is through music.  Think of the last time you were at a baseball game and everyone sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  The entire stadium is able to work together as a unit.  Also, “Music has historically been one of the strongest forces binding together the disenfranchised, the alienated.” (61)

Songs of Joy release oxytocin in the brain.  “Oxytocin has just been found to increase trust between people.” (98) This, obviously, would help in creating a group of people who can work together to create a larger society.  Levitin quotes new research that suggests that music, especially joyful music, affects our health in fundamental ways.  Music also modulates levels of dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone) in the brain.  Levitin suggests “we have the relationship with music we do because those of our ancestors who found it enjoyable to be musical were those who were successful at passing on their genes.” (109)  He continues on to state, “Fundamentally, we have joy songs because moving around, dancing, exercising our bodies and minds is something that was adaptive in evolutionary history.  Stretching, jumping, and using sound to communicate felt good because our brains – through natural selection – developed rewards for those behaviors.” (109)  Joy helps us to connect to what matters in our lives and helps to recall that connection when we need reminding.  Joy songs also help us to communicate our emotional states with others.

Songs of Comfort are fundamental to growing up.  Mothers the world over sing lullabies to their children.  What teenager would have made it through high school without the consolation of music (even if, to others, the song would not be of comfort)?  Music helps to bring a consistent energy to a room and again, bring cohesiveness to a group working together.  Many children learn to self-comfort by singing to themselves songs that their mothers sang as lullabies. “Singing can soother and comfort infants in ways that other actions cannot, and this is in part because of how different auditory stimulation is from other senses.”  (126) Sound travels through space and is an indicator, even when there is no visual or physical contact available.  Lullabies share structural similarities, as well. (126)

Songs of Knowledge are ubiquitous in all societies.  How do children learn their alphabet (The Alphabet Song)? How do children learn songs of physical knowledge about their world (“The Wheels on the Bus” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”)? How do children learn to work together (“Everybody clean up, clean up, clean up”) and take care of their belongings? How do children learn to count?  Memory songs involve learning sequences (“There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”).  Most of these songs are learned through oral tradition – children at young ages do not yet read.  Schoolhouse Rock is a fabulous exemplar of remembering complicated information made easy by being set to memorable music.  “The mutually reinforcing, multiple constraints that help us to remember song lyrics are principally rhyme, rhythm, accent structure, melody, and clichés, along with various poetic devices such as those we saw in Chapter I, including alliteration and metaphor.” (156)

“The criticality of time and place is a hallmark of ritual songs.” (204)Songs of Religion are found throughout world religions.  My family recently changed churches, specifically because the music was not speaking to us.  At the first service at our new church, I found myself crying because I was able to emotionally connect to the music during the service.  “Ceremonies with music reaffirm the propositions, and the music sticks in our heads, reminding us of what we believe and what we have agreed to.  Music during ritual is designed, in most cases, to evoke a “religious experience,” a peak experience, intensely emotional, the effects of which can last the rest of a person’s life.  Trance states can occur during these experiences, resulting in feelings of ecstasy and connectedness.” (222)  Music is able to motivate repetitive action and to bring closure, lessening the human tendency to obsess over the unknown.

Songs of Love again help to communicate emotion.  When someone hears “their song,” it brings to mind a specific time, place and emotion.  Even many years later, people are able to travel back in time through memory, when a certain song is heard.  The reason this would be selective for human evolution is that it recalls times when two people felt very close, even if at the moment they are not in close emotional resonance.  “Love for one’s partner and children evolved, culturally (and perhaps biologically), into the capacity to love life and fairness, goodness and equality, and all the ideals we associate with society.” (263)  Through music, we are able to symbolize something that is not there – be it a loved one who is out of our sight or recollection of an emotion we may not immediately feel.  Music also serves as an “honest signal” (279).  Our brains perceive information received through musical means as more honest and true.

Levitin concludes with “Although the important functions of music can be described in these six categories, the specific ways that people from different musical cultures have found to make music are very diverse.” (281)  This book lays out a compelling case for the evolutionary (natural selective) reason that we are hard wired to be musical beings (as evidenced by neurological studies – see Dr. Levitin’s 2007 book This is Your Brain on Music).  I found his arguments to be very persuasive and the book to be entertaining.  Although it deals with what could be a dry subject, it is well written, has many interviews with musicians (from Sting and Paul Simon to Joni Mitchell and David Byrne) and historians, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists.  One of my favorite quotes from the book involves music of Religion:  Levitin’s friend, Rabbi Hayyim Kassorla, states “So what if there’s a center in the brain that makes people think of God? Why wouldn’t there be? Maybe God put it there to help us to understand and communicate with him.” (196)

I highly recommend this book for insight into sociological and evolutionary reasons we are hard-wired for music.  Music is in everything we do as human beings, and this book explores how we may have gotten to be that way.  The only thing I felt lacking in the book was that the musical examples are very North American-centric.  The book is clearly written for those living in North America, with familiarity with popular culture (song selections mentioned in the book can be heard at www.sixsongs.net), and I would have really liked to have had a broader world view presented.  But, overall, I really enjoyed the book and found it thought provoking and informative.

Levitin, Daniel J., The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. New York, NY.  Dutton/Penguin.  2008.

Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/World-Six-Songs-Musical-Created/dp/B002RAR126/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2

Visit www.sixsongs.net for the musical examples that are prevalent throughout the book.

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

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