THE WORLD IN SIX SONGS: HOW THE MUSICAL BRAIN CREATED HUMAN NATURE by Daniel J. Levitin (Viking Canada), 354 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Daniel J. Levitin returns with the same smart, readable mix of science, personal anecdote and musical example that made last year's This Is Your Brain On Music so engaging.
This time he's out to demonstrate music's central place in the evolution of societies. It's a broader target than explaining how our brains process music, and builds on the brain chemistry and neuroscience of the previous book.
There's much less of that here, though, and more anthropology. You don't have to read the previous book to understand this one, but it doesn't hurt.
The six songs are really six types of song, expressions of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. Working from a premise that the brain and music co-evolved, Levitin explains how each song type enables aspects of human bonding, cooperation and coordination.
Chemically, it often comes down to a release of oxytocin, a neurochemical known to be involved in establishing bonds of trust between people.
But Levitin is no mere chemical reductionist. A guitarist and record producer before turning to academia, he views art and science as two ends of a continuum that meet at a common point. He shows how songs function in the real world.
He also invites artists into his discussion. Joni Mitchell and David Byrne in particular have interesting things to say in the chapter on religion, the book's most radical section.
Levitin bypasses the usual theist-atheist debate to present religion as an outgrowth of ritual, a part of our evolutionary heritage that may be related to a certain area of the brain.
For anyone interested in music, evolution or the nature of society, this is a must-read.
Levitin gives a performance/lecture based on his book Tuesday (September 16) at the Edward Johnson Building. See Readings.