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The world in six songs : how the musical…

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

by Daniel J. Levitin

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Title:The world in six songs : how the musical brain created human nature
Authors:Daniel J. Levitin
Info:Toronto : Viking Canada, 2008.
Collections:Your library, @Home
Tags:Non-Fiction, Music, Science

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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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First off, this book should to be retitled. Instead of "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature" it ought to be called "Evolution and Music: How the Great and Powerful Evolution Gifted Us with Music." The six songs aspect of the book, in spite of the title and layout of the chapters, was more of an afterthought than the main point of this book, and the way that Levitin speaks of evolution is like he's speaking about a being, rather than a force of nature. Which brings up another complaint. I follow the Church's teaching on evolution laid out here, and as such, I would have been okay with discussions on evolution if Levitin had been willing to discuss evolution as the theory that it is, instead of trying to make it look like it is as much of a law as the law of gravity. It bothered me and I do think that there has been at least some evolution, if someone who believed purely in creationism was reading the book, then the constant discussion of evolution in this way would have meant that the said creationist would almost certainly have shut down and not considered the few interesting things that Levitin had to say, because of the way that discussions on evolution were carried out.

I was skeptical of the "six songs" view, and unfortunately, Levitin's meager discussions on the subject that gave the book its title, were not enough to win me over to his view. His six song types are friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love.

In his discussion of friendship, he attempted to claim that work, propaganda, protest, war, and peace songs were all friendship songs. I'm sorry even if you can argue work songs into the friendship category because they help people to coordinate their movement, and you can argue that war and propaganda could be the same, or that propaganda and protest are the same, you can't put all of those together under friendship. In the chapter on friendship Levitin also tried to sell me drugs. Seriously, there were whole paragraphs on the effects of drugs, and why we should try them. He named some of his favorite artists who had used drugs 'responsibly,' but quite a bit of the discussion was just talking about what different drugs do to the brain, without even mentioning the effect they have on a person's enjoyment of music. It was in this dreadful chapter, also that Levitin decided that a) he could misrepresent history, and b) he could decide who deserves to be saved from genocide, and who doesn't.

Levitin said "I understood World War II--my grandfather had fought in that, and although the war was terrible, the reason for it was clear. A tyrant was trying to kill all the Jews; we were Jewish, and some countries came to our aid." While I do agree that the genocide of the Jews would have justified WWII, even if it weren't already justified, that isn't why any of the countries that fought Hitler fought him. Most of the countries of Europe were still anti-Semitic themselves, and it was the Holocaust that helped to wake them up to the horrors that this way of thinking could produce, and none of them were fighting to save the Jews. They were fighting to save themselves and/or their allies.

Levitin then claims, multiple times, that the war in Vietnam was not justifiable. I still don't know where I stand on the subject of the Vietnam war, the justifications for the Vietnam War are certainly less black and white than WWII, but it can still be justified. I have Vietnamese friends who would probably never have been able to escape the Viet Kong if the US hadn't gone to fight. The treatment of Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận and other political prisoners of the North Vietnamese alone is enough to make one reevaluate one's position on the war. Add to that the fact that the Cambodian genocide occurred, in part, because the US pulled out (right when they could have won) and you may really be filled with doubt. I didn't live during the Vietnam War, so like I said, I really don't know where I stand on its justification, but what I got from Levitin's approach on the subject (that really didn't need to be in this book in the first place) was that the genocide of the Jews was evil and unacceptable (which is true) but the genocide of people in small Asian countries was fine (which is not true.)

The discussion of joyful songs was much more convincing than the discussion of friendship songs. For one thing, Levitin actually managed to (mostly) stay on topic, and not list a slew of different song types that he believes to be part of joy.

The chapter on comfort was also (mostly) on subject, but Levitin started it by telling half of a story, then explaining about his theories on why we find comforting songs comforting, and what songs we find comforting, before going back to finish the story. By that time I'd put the first half of the story out of my mind and mostly forgotten about it. It didn't seem very important, so the return of the narrative forced me to go back to the beginning of the chapter and remind myself of what the heck was going on in the story.

He used the same broken up storytelling/facts/storytelling in the knowledge chapter, to the same unfortunate mistake. He also seemed like he was doing a lot of name dropping throughout the book, but it was particularly bad in this chapter. Levitin did manage to make me want to travel to Yugoslavia and Gola of West Africa to hear the ballads and song/storytelling there.

I went into the religion chapter apprehensively. I am Catholic, and, in spite of his statement that he was Jewish, the vibes I was getting from Levitin was that he was either a liberal atheist or a liberal agnostic. He wasn't horrible, but he wasn't great either. At one point he said one of the most significant events of all times was the 'invention' of monotheism. -_- Even if he isn't Jewish now, having once been, you'd think he'd at least consider the possibility that monotheism has been around since before polytheism. He also made a statement that 'none of us have ancestors who died in infancy.' This depends on who you consider your ancestors, I mean, would a great-aunt or uncle who died in infancy not be an ancestor? Obviously no one from the straight line of your family has died in infancy, but the siblings of your great-great-great-grandparents could arguably be your ancestors. I also don't remember the verse of 'God Told Noah' that Levitin quotes, and frankly, it doesn't feel like it fits correctly into the verse rhythm. And his claim that we do 'jazz hands' on the word glory... Phfft. No we wave our hands back and forth above our head, we don't jiggle them next to our faces.

And then there was the love chapter. Levitin first acknowledged that what current society deems as 'love' isn't truly love, then goes on to talk about society's 'love' songs, as well as outright lust songs, but pretty much ignore the actual love songs, as well as actual love. Every chapter went on some kind of a tangent about how, when and why 'mother evolution' provided us with each kind of song, but the love chapter was the crowning glory of evolutionary tangents. Levitin talked about everything from why we are less likely to jump at the noise after seeing a pin pop a balloon a couple of times, to how our 'ear hairs' are similar to an insect's leg hairs. This chapter was just plain painful to read. It felt like Levitin was trying to draw it out as long as he possibly could. The last few pages were devoted to hero-worship of a couple of a couple of pop-musicians, none of whom I'd ever heard of.

That was another major problem with the work. Levitin mostly uses pop artists from between the 1960s and the 1980s, mostly from the US, Canada, and the UK. This may have made the examples recognizable for many people I'm sure, but I'm pop-musically challenged, and recognized very few of the artists and songs he talked about. Whenever he wasn't using pop-artists, he usually used hypothetical music that he believes the early humans would have used (often presenting his belief that they would have used these kinds of songs as fact, rather than a possibility.)

Because Levitin spent a relatively small portion of the book actually developing his hypothesis that there are only six kinds of songs in the world, he didn't even come close to convincing me to take this position. In addition to war, peace, propaganda, protest and lust, I feel that Levitin missed sad songs. He briefly mentioned this in the chapters on comfort and religion, and I do agree that songs of sadness and heartbreak will sometimes fall dually in those areas, but I also feel that they deserve their own category. Another type I felt that was skipped over was songs of determination. Determination songs could fall under protest songs, but while I was thinking of this I was thinking of Beethoven's fifth symphony, which was written right about the time Beethoven lost his hearing. Beethoven was depressed and seriously considered suicide, but chose not to because he thought that the music he hadn't written yet deserved to be heard. This quote; "I shall seize Fate by the throat; it shall certainly not bend and crush me completely," has been associated with the fifth symphony, and while the symphony is too complex to be called a 'song' if there is a more simplified vocal song encapsulating these feelings, then it would be a determination song without being easily placed in any of the other categories. And "Sweet Liberty" from the Jane Eyre musical is full of longing without being either a comfort song or a love song.

Then there are songs of vengeance. Where are they in Levitin's book? Or songs about making plans? Like In the Dark of the Night or Be Prepared. Even if we used the excuse that these songs aren't songs of vengeance or planning because they're in movies and only meant for entertainment, there would still be entertainment songs left without a category. Given the fact that Friends on the Other Side doesn't strictly fit into either making plans or vengeance, but simply acting on evil desires, where does that song go?

There really are an infinite number of categories and sub-categories that Levitin chose to ignore.

When I read the first chapter (that was really more like an introduction) I was thinking, okay, this book isn't great but it wasn't as bad as I'd heard it was, I can probably give it three stars. By the time I was done with the second chapter, I knew it wasn't going to be much fun, but was prepared to give it two stars. By the time I finally finished it, I could only give it one star. Sorry.

Hopefully this review wasn't as painfully long and rambling as Levitin's book. Anyhow, I'm off to reorganize it, remove all personal pronouns and (probably) shorten it so that I can turn it in as a book report. ( )
  NicoleSch | Jun 1, 2016 |
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 |
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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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:37 -0400)

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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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