Saturday, July 31, 2010

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

By Daniel Levitin

New York, Dutton, 2008

Week 32 Non-Fiction

Ever had a song stuck in your head for days on end? Ever wondered how you were able to sing a lullaby to your baby that you hadn’t heard since you were a baby? Did you and your partner ever have “your song?” Daniel Levitin addresses these things and more in an enlightening book about music, biology, culture, history, and evolution. I listened to this in the car with the author reading the book.

Levitin is a musician, a music producer, a musicologist, a product of the 1970s, and a neuroscientist. He is imminently qualified to discuss this topic. He reduces the history of mankind (and throws in a huge dose of biology) to six types of song and how those six types can be found throughout history. They are: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Think about it—all the songs with lyrics that you know can fit into one of those categories. One of the most interesting stories he tells is about how ancient armies used drums to intimidate their enemies. Just the sound of the drumming as the army prepared for the attack struck fear into the hearts of the enemy who suddenly felt ill-prepared in the face of such solidarity. The MSU Fight Song—a friendship song; The alphabet song—a knowledge song; You are my Sunshine—a love song. Levitin calls music “the soundtrack of civilization.”

Along the way, Levitin helps us understand how music developed, how it survived, how some families are musical and some are not, and develops a theory for the power that music has played throughout history. One concept he presents over and over is that you are here with your genetic pool intact, because your ancestors didn’t die in childhood.

One interesting thing for me is to watch my grandchildren become another generation of singers, musicians and actors. I see my genetic pool at work. My granddaughter, Isabela, born in Guatamala, is musical to the core. Lucky her—to have me for a Grandma. I can help that gift develop, even if we have no idea of her genetic background.

This is a fascinating read. As I was listening to the CD, however, I wished that there had been more music. It needed to be there. Just telling me about a particular song wasn’t the same as hearing it. After all, I’m a musician.

I am sure that there are much more learned reviews of this book. But please, remember, I was listening to it on a long car trip. I didn’t have a chance to write anything down. Yet, I felt an affirmation that the music that is in my soul will be passed down to my children’s children. Our music is here to stay. And by the way, “Our song” (my first husband, Lee’s and mine), was the “Theme to Mondo Cane”—“More than the greatest love!” As song by Bobby Darin.

Here is Daniel Levitin’s website:

The New York Times review:

Interview with Daniel Levitin:

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