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

Review of The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
by Daniel J. Levitin
(Dutton, 336 pages, $25.95, August, 2008)
(Also in CD, Penguin Audio, $34.95)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

Buy The World in Six Songs and support The Science Shelf Book Review Archive.

In his innovative 2006 bestseller, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin, a path-breaking McGill University neuroscientist and former world-class music producer, led readers on a trip inside their musical brain.

Music, he argued, was more than a fortunate evolutionary by-product of language development. The book made a persuasive case that our minds and our bodies would have evolved very differently without it. And it did so in an entertaining style with excursions into autobiography, popular culture, and every imaginable musical genre.

Now in The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, Levitin extends that argument beyond individual brains to human civilization and culture. For fans of Brain on Music, this is a must-read. For other readers, this is a literary, poetic, scientific, and musical treat waiting to be discovered.

In the opening chapter, readers discover the author to be a lively conversationalist who can regale them with stories from his wide-ranging musical experiences while posing scientific questions that send them exploring paths they didn’t even know existed.

That chapter ends by restating the subtitle’s audacious claim

Through a process of co-evolution of brains and music, through the structures throughout our cortex and neocortex, from our brain stem to the prefrontal cortex, from the limbic system to the cerebellum, music uniquely insinuates itself into our heads. It does this in six distinctive ways, each of them with their own evolutionary basis….

Music has “been with humans since we first became humans. It has shaped the world through six kinds of songs: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love.”

The book then devotes a chapter to each song type, blending neuroscience, evolutionary biology, social anthropology, musicology, and conversations with contemporary musical greats such as Sting and Joni Mitchell, who seem as enthralled with the author’s six-songs thesis as he is.

It is impossible to predict which chapter will connect best with which readers, but from the literary standpoint, it would be hard to beat “Comfort,” which begins with a moment of high drama.

“Eddie–the dishwasher at the pancake restaurant where I worked–lunged at my boss Victor with a kitchen knife. Victor fled, through the restaurant, just two steps ahead of him, knocking over a stack of high chairs and a few skinny teenage waitresses as he tried to get away…. Victor made it to the parking lot and drove off. I went back to cooking pancakes and Eddie limped out the side door, and we never saw him again. All this over a song. And not just any song but Tony Orlando and Dawn’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.”

After learning the back-story of this incident, which is interwoven with the story of how the young Levitin came to be working in that eatery, readers will never view comfort music–including the blues–in the same way.

That chapter illustrates Levitin’s mastery of literary structure, a skill that must have served him well in his previous career as a producer. The same skill is apparent in the ordering of his chapters, which build to an intense climax and end with a closing paragraph that is a love song in prose to love itself.

Romantic love may be a powerful illusion, but (as some love songs teach us) mature love binds spouses, families, cultures, and civilization itself. It is in our genes, in the structure and function of our brains, and it is inseparable from musical inheritance with which it co-evolved.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of Beyond Jupiter, a young reader’s biography of planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel, whose life has been shaped by a love of both science and music.

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