Review: The World in Six Songs

the world in six songs

The World in Six SongsDaniel J. Levitin. New York: Dutton, 2008.

Summary: Proposes that all the world’s songs can be grouped into six categories, and explores the evolutionary, cultural, and musical reasons for each category.

According to Daniel J. Levitin, I could reorganize the music in my collection into six categories–at least the music meant to be sung.

They are songs of:

  1. Friendship: These are the songs that emphasize the bonds within a group, from the classic “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” to protest songs like “For What It’s Worth” that promoted solidarity around a cause.
  2. Joy: Songs that express delight, the thrill of a wonderful experience, or of just being alive. These include everything from ad jingles like “Sometimes I feel like a nut” to “You are My Sunshine” and often have a TRIP structure (Tension, Reaction, Imagination and Prediction). Singing these songs often releases endorphins  and oxytocin, hormones often release during peak physical experiences including sex.
  3. Comfort: These are the cathartic songs that lift our spirits in times of crisis, from “God Bless America” (during the aftermath of 9/11) to many country and blues songs, that comfort through the release of prolactin, a hormone associated with crying replacing sorrow with a kind of peacefulness and hopefulness for the future.
  4. Knowledge: Many of these are songs that convey information that help us learn everything from the alphabet (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) to counting songs like “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” to “Thirty Days Hath September.” He explores why sung words are so readily remembered (as I found out the Karaoke night when I got called out to sing “American Pie” and discovered I knew most of it from memory!).
  5. Religion: He includes here all the songs we use for the important rituals of our lives such as “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Wedding March” and why they are not appropriate outside certain settings. He proposes evolutionary origins behind why music may be so powerfully connected to the rituals that express ultimate human concerns.
  6. Love: He explores the paradoxical quality of the romantic songs we sing and how they often express some ideal version of real human relationships. Yet there are others that express more realistically the choices in love, such as Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” the line being one between marital faithfulness and philandering.

The author is a researcher in Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, but has also worked as a professional musician and music producer. What is surprising is that this is not a research-based book. There is no research by Levitin or others cited to justify his six categories. It seems, rather that this is simply his own conceptual schema, which he fills out in this book. Chapters are made up of a mix of musical examples, musical anecdotes including interviews with musicians ranging from Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon to David Byrne and Sting. He also incorporates speculative theory on evolutionary origins of particular aspects and effects of music, and draws on cognitive research on the neurophysiology of music, a field where he has made his own contributions, as may be found on his website.

I found this an interesting but rather “rambling” book. The particular song type of each chapter seems just a starting point for a wide-ranging mix of research, song lyrics and anecdote, that doesn’t always seem well connected, but certainly reflects his wide experiences playing with bands like Blue Oyster Cult, visiting the hotel suite where John Lennon, Yoko Ono, staged their “bed-in” and recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” as well as his explorations of evolutionary biology and cognitive research.

I came across a small factual error where he refers to the four “student protesters” (p. 69) who were killed at Kent State. In actual fact, only two of the four were protesters, the other two were students in the vicinity walking between classes who were not part of the protests. This factual inaccuracy (easily checked online) led me to wonder about the author’s method and how much he relied on recollection as opposed to carefully documented and cross-checked research. I would probably place the highest confidence in those areas most directly related to his own field of cognition.

One of the most moving sections was in his chapter on “Religion.” He writes of attending his Jewish grandmother’s funeral and the powerful effect of singing a version of Psalm 131. He writes:

“It was not the memorial speeches that brought us to tears, not the lowering of her casket into the ground, but the haunting strains of that hymn that broke through our stoic veneer and tapped those trapped feelings, pushed down deep beneath the surface of our daily lives; by the end of the song, there wasn’t a dry cheek among our group. It was this event that helped all of us accept the death of my grandmother, to mourn appropriately, and ultimately, to replace rumination with resolution. Without music as a catalyst, as the Trojan horse that allowed access to our most private thoughts–and perhaps fears of our own mortality–the morning would have been incomplete, the feelings would have stayed locked inside us, where they might have fermented and built up tension, finally exploding out of us at some distant time in the future and for no apparent reason. Grandma was gone; we had shared the realization and etched it in our minds, sealed with a song” (p. 228).

While Levitin’s ideas sometimes get lost in his rambling narratives, his categories and discussion do help us understand the different ways that music powerfully works in our lives, and what might be going on in our brains as it does so.


One thought on “Review: The World in Six Songs

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: August 2017 | Bob on Books

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