Academic journal article Psychomusicology

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

Academic journal article Psychomusicology

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

Article excerpt

"The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature" by Daniel J. Levitin "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature", by Daniel J. Levitin. New York: Dutton, 2008. (ISBN: 9780525950738. Hard cover, 354 pp., $25.95.)

Although the conventions of scientific writing demand detachment and objectivity, this requirement is probably not a serious problem for chemists or anatomists. In music psychology, however, I suspect that most researchers came to their subject because as youngsters they were musically gifted and passionate about music. Years of graduate study and its requisite mastery of academic writing style necessarily take their toll on the expression of enthusiasm if not the feelings of enthusiasm themselves.

Daniel J. Levitin has not suppressed his excitement about music or its neuroscientific substrates. In his best-seller of 2006, This is Your Brain on Music, Levitin spiritedly threw off the shackles of boilerplate scientific writing and described for general readers in an easy conversational style the neurological basis for elements of music such as pitch, timbre, key, harmony, loudness, rhythm, meter and tempo and how these come together in the brain to become the music that we hear and are even obsessed by. In his recent best-seller, The World In Six Songs (2008), he uses the same colloquial style to ask Big Questions - How and why did music originate? What functions does it serve (today and ancestrally, during human evolution)? What motivates us to produce and consume music? How can we understand the often strong emotions that music creates? And indeed, this is what most non-professional music-lovers want to know - far more than the information that their attention to pitch sequences occurs in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and Brodmann areas 44 and 47 (although he tells us that too).

Rather than treating music as a rare and mysterious human capacity, Levitin regards it as common - as would any ethnomusicologist who has lived in a traditional society where everyone participates unselfconsciously in musical events. As a former record producer and professional saxophonist as well as a cognitive neuroscientist of music, he is admirably (and probably, among his colleagues, uniquely) familiar with both the music and lyrics of recent recorded American popular songs. He can be commended for addressing this neglected ethnomusicological genre and at the same time attracting a new audience for the findings of psychomusicology.

As a device to describe the many contributions of music to our species nature, he discusses six broad categories of songs - Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion, and Love. Whether composed by Sting or Schubert (or the poets whose words inspired them), songs of all times do seem to address these various states.

The "Friendship" chapter, for example, provides the opportunity to discuss music's ability to coordinate and even synchronize movement - leading to cooperation, bonding, and feelings of transcendence. "Joy" includes musical pleasure, celebration, and the therapeutic benefits of music. Music of "Comfort" describes the soothing effect of lullabies and the blues - as well as the use of "background music" in commercial and social settings. Music's ability (when combined with words) to assist memory, tell stories, and teach are its "Knowledge" functions. "Religion" involves music's age-old association with ritual and spirituality. And "Love" links music with romance, altruism, and caring. Each chapter also contains speculations on complex, specialized subjects that fit into the scheme only tangentially, including (in the Love chapter) musings on human brain expansion and organization, evolutionary developments that encouraged our unusual abilities to represent something that is not present, to take another's perspective, and the capacity to impose structure through combining and recombining diverse elements.

The book is full of fascinating information, painlessly and interestingly conveyed. …

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