Thursday, September 3, 2009

The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin - Book Review

Daniel J. Levitin’s first book This is Your Brain on Music detailed how the human brain processes and responds to music. He included lots of brain geography and explained how the way the brain works affects the choices we make in music with particular reference to the relationship of human development to music.  In his new book The World in Six Songs, recently released in trade paperback (Plume Books, a part of the Penguin Group, 2008, $16.00) Levitin is after bigger game.  He seeks to examine how the ability to make and reproduce music in humans evolved side by side with the development of our species and, ultimately, is a crucial element in what makes us human.  I think it was philosopher George Santayana who once noted there were only six plots in all literature. The joke was that Santayana neglected to name them. Later critics have identified major plot types as Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. God, etc.  In the same way, Levitin identifies six basic kinds of songs he claims to encompass the entire body of music throughout human history: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love songs.  Levitin asks, “How did all these musics make us who we are? (pg. 7) And then he proceeds to answer his own question.
Levitin persuasively argues that music and movement have been a part of human evolutionary patterns since the very beginning, a genetic predisposition deeply embedded in our DNA. He takes several opportunities in this most readable volume to point out that none of us is descended from ancestors who didn’t live long enough to reproduce (a thought so obvious it knocked me over with its power to support the idea of evolution and inherited characteristics) and that making music must go back to our earliest days of communication.  He cites drums used to evoke terror, pre-language acting out the location of a crocodile by slashing about on the ground and making representative sounds to warn of the danger, or mothers using songs to help their restive children to fall asleep in what have become known as lullabies, and which seem to have a universal form and structure that lead to sleep. He sketches how songs of friendship and solidarity have helped group movements to grow strong.  Using the anti-war movement during the war in Vietnam, he shows how song served as a rallying point for like-minded people to oppose what they saw as an unjust war. He suggests that songs of solidarity helped move the union movement during the first half of the twentieth century. 
Levitin argues that earliest songs were almost always accompanied by movement which may or may not have become formalized into what would look and feel like dance to us.  Dance, he says, is a physiological response to the “feel good” hormones generated by listening to music and says that the dance response may have been bred out of contemporary generations which sit and passively listen to music.  Although even at the most staid classical music event, it’s not unusual to see heads bobbing and feet tapping as people respond to the music. One of Levitin’s more interesting points is that positive outlooks tend to lead towards greater success, while over optimism is more likely to lead to frequent failure. On the other hand, a defeatist will more often forego activities which might have been successful or pleasurable. He concludes a half-full attitude is a worthwhile posture towards life.  He links this to joyful music and the evolutionary benefit to be derived from remaining positive. 
Levitin holds that songs of religion and faith are part of what set us aside as human (192). They are often connected to specific events, rituals, and religious rites.  He talks about how it would seem to be inappropriate to sing a Christmas carol in the middle of summer.  His discussion of religion as it relates to music emphasizes the ability of religious singing to increase fervor and move people to action.  It raised in my mind the issue of the extensive use of gospel music at bluegrass festivals turning the events into (nearly) exclusive Christian gatherings, thereby limiting the potential audience to some extent. 
Songs of love hold a huge place in human development. While Levitin gives relatively little credence to romantic love because it is relatively short lived in the individual experience and relatively new in human experience, he says it has had a very strong influence on popular culture. He also says the songs of love contribute to pair bonding and parenting in humans contributing to our emergence as the kind of humans we have become.  He writes about the four stages of songs of love: I want you, I got you, I miss you, it’s all over and I’m heart-broken. He also points out the different types of love: Romeo & Juliet, mature and looking back, and love of ideals, like country and family. 
Levitin holds that songs of love have the power to release encoded memory.  He says that love songs “imprint themselves on our brains like no others.” (280) Even 55 or so years after my summer camp experiences, the song “Embraceable You” sung by Ella Fitzgerald can raise poignant memories in me of being asked to dance by a pretty girl, and my hurt and embarrassment at having to decline, because I had no idea what to do.  This brings me to one of the features of Levitin’s music which makes it a sheer delight to read. Levitin writes from a deep well of personal experience as well as a solid grounding in science and music theory.  His books are filled with personal tales illustrating points and making sometimes difficult ideas easily accessible. 
Music has, through much of its history, been a participatory activity rather than performance oriented.  Levitin argues that two of the greatest inventions of modern times have been musical notation and recording.  By permitting a standardized way to communicate music and allowing a standard based on professional performance to emerge, these two innovations have changed the way humans experience music. It is probably too soon to say how they may affect our future evolution.  He also points out the importance of the blues in the development of modern American music.  This influence can be seen in jazz, R&B, gospel, rock, metal, bluegrass, and country music. (283) In the end, Levitin concludes “Music makes us human,” but it’s how he reaches this conclusion that makes this fine volume a must read for anyone interested in music.
Levitin deftly roams through the worlds of evolutionary biology, anthropology, sociology, and musicology to mine the ways in which music developed and human development have interacted to make us the people we are. His own background as a neuro-scientist, musician, and record producer have given him access to assessing his own experience and digging into the experience of many of the world’s great musicians.  Two of his more interesting sources for this book were the rocker Sting and folk singer/composer Joni Mitchell, to name only two.  His taste is eclectic and his writing filled with endless examples to support his points.  Interested readers can hear clips of each piece of music mentioned by visiting his web site.  People wishing to experience longer than thirty second clips might have to roam further, but these clips provide flavor to support his points.  The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin is available in hard cover, trade paperback, audio book, and as an e-book.  It can be purchased on line of from your local independent book seller or big box chain book outlet.  It is published by Plume Books, a division of the Penguin Group