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The world in six songs : how the musical brain created human nature (original 2008; edition 2008)

by Daniel J. Levitin

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Member:StephenBarkley
Title:The world in six songs : how the musical brain created human nature
Authors:Daniel J. Levitin
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The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin (2008)

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Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist who is also a musician and former record producer, so he would seem to be uniquely qualified to write a book like this, about how music has shaped the human mind and how the human mind has shaped music.

The "six songs" of the title are actually six categories of song, which Levitin believes can be used to describe the various functions of music in human society: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. He regards this as an exhaustive list. I am unconvinced by that, personally, although I will say that it's at least closer to exhaustive then you might think, as he defines these categories very broadly. "Friendship" songs, for example, are defined as any (non-religious) songs that function to bind people together, including national anthems, work songs designed to establish the rhythm of a task, and songs associated with a particular movement or group.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I think it contains a lot of interesting and often insightful commentary on music, the role it plays in human society and the effect it can have on us as individuals. I found the chapter on "knowledge songs" particularly interesting. Here, Levitin discusses the fact that we remember things much better if we learn them in the form of a song, which, when you stop to think about it, is both obvious and kind of strange. He also talks about techniques that make songs easier to memorize, which is extremely important in cultures without writing, where all knowledge and all stories must be passed on orally. And he considers the idea that many songs are written to remind the writer of their own experiences and the life lessons they have learned, and to share those experiences and lessons with others. There's some thought-provoking stuff here.

As a popular science book, though, I think it's less successful. A lot of his discussions about music and the brain seem rather simplistic to me, and to imply a lot more scientific certainty and scientific understanding than we really have yet about how anything this complex works in the brain. (Although Levitin has apparently written a previous book specifically about music and the brain, so it's possible he deals with the subject in a more nuanced way there and has deliberately simplified things a bit here to avoid going over too much of the same ground.) Also, while his more general explanations about evolution are fine, the specific ideas he presents about how music might have influenced human evolution and vice versa are really speculative. Evolutionary psychology is often criticized for making up "Just So Stories." I think that's often kind of an unfair characterization, but there are places here where it most definitely applies.

Levitin can also get a bit rambly and is sometimes prone to repeating himself. And while his tendency to include his own experiences with music provides a nice personal touch, I think there are parts of the book where he lets it all become a little bit too much about him for just a little too long.

Bottom line: It's worth reading and sometimes fascinating, but flawed, and some of it is probably best taken with a grain of salt. ( )
3 vote bragan | Feb 1, 2014 |
Levitin's previous book, This Is Your Brain on Music ,
really impressed me. This one impressed me, too, but less. Levitin is best when discussing music and the neuroscience findings about music and why we like it, play it, sing it. When he is writing on music and neuroscience, Levitin has my attention and his prose is striking, convincing. When he is theorizing about evolutionary anthropology, I was distracted, and there is a lot of that in this book, as well as some editorializing about music and life that I also found interesting but distracting. So, three stars, not four or five. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Not as good as This is Your Brain On Music ( )
  pjeanne | Aug 7, 2011 |
Levitin is a scientist specializing in musical cognition -- how the brain interprets music, and why a love for music developed from an evolutionary standpoint. I have mixed feeling about the book. On the one hand, Levitin puts forth some really interesting ideas. On the other, the book isn't very well organized. It meanders all over the place, and not in an engaging way. I wish there was more structure to the book.

At least it's an interesting read. 3 stars out of 5. ( )
  SwitchKnitter | Nov 13, 2009 |
Really unimpressed. Schmalzy anecdotal stuff about his time in the music industry thinly disguised as academic musicology. Very little actual solid information to hang onto the loose hypotheses he makes. Not a good read for me. Overblown, irritatingly egotistical and annoyingly patriotic. Surprised it found a publisher. I gave it one and a half stars. ( )
  kiwidoc | Sep 5, 2009 |
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On my desk right now I have a stack of music CDs that couldn't be more different: an eighteenth-century opera by Martin Marais whose lyrics describe the gory details of a surgical operation; a North African griot singing a song, offered to businessmen passing by in the hopes of securing a handout; a piece written 185 years ago that requires 120 musicians to perform it properly, each of them reading a very specific and inviolable part off of a page (Beethoven's Symphony no. 9).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0525950737, Hardcover)

In his enthralling and revelatory This is Your Brain on Music Daniel Levitin unpicked the pathways of the brain to reveal how human beings have been hard-wired for music. Now, in an astonishing blend of art and science, he unveils his revolutionary theory of 'Six Songs', and describes how music played a pivotal role in the creation of human culture and society. Dividing the sum total of human musical achievement, from Beethoven to The Beatles, Busta Rhymes to Bach, into just six fundamental forms, Levitin illuminates, through songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love, how music has been instrumental in the evolution of language, thought and culture. And how, far from being a bit of a song and dance, music is at the core of what it means to be human. A one-time record producer, now a leading neuroscientist, Levitin has composed a catchy and startlingly ambitious narrative that weaves together Darwin and Dionne Warwick, memoir and biology, anthropology and a jukebox of anecdote to create nothing less than the 'soundtrack of civilisation'. The World in Six Songs will change the way you listen to music for ever. Daniel Levitin is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at McGill University. Before entering academia he worked as a session musician, sound engineer and record producer. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:29 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The author of This Is Your Brain on Music showcases his theory of how the brain evolved to play and listen to music in six fundamental forms--for knowledge, friendship, religion, joy, comfort, and love. Preserving the emotional history of our lives and of our species, from its very beginning music was also allied to dance, as the structure of the brain confirms; developing this neurological observation, Levitin shows how music and dance enabled the social bonding and friendship necessary for human culture and society to evolve. Blending scientific findings with his own experiences as a musician and music-industry professional, Levitin also incorporates wisdom gleaned from interviews with icons ranging from Sting and Paul Simon to Joni Mitchell, and David Byrne, along with classical musicians and conductors, historians, anthropologists, and evolutionary biologists.--From publisher description.… (more)

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» see all 3 descriptions

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