A Book Review: The World in Six Songs – How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

Dr. Daniel J. Levitin is uniquely suited to address the topic of the musical brain. His first career, record producer and professional musician, led into his becoming a research scientist. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University. Besides this book, he also has authored, This is Your Brain on Music. He classifies music into six songs: Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion and Love. Going through each of these types of songs, Levitin explains how the brain works. I found that part interesting, however, I easily tried of his couching all of this within the frame work of evolutionary fiction. If you have read other reviews I have written, you know that I learn much from individuals even though their presuppositions are evolutionary.

Levitin illustrates each of his categories with the lyrics of different songs. First, Friendship, introduces us to the first kind of song. He explains how the rhythm of songs like “Smokin’ in the boys’ room” binds a group together. Further, he tells us of a small group of hunter-gatherers in the Brazilian Amazon, the Mekranoti. These people sing for hours a day, sometimes to warn of an attack by a rival tribe. Rowing crews and other work teams have used rhythmic songs to coordinate their task. Our emotions represent neurochemical reactions in our brains.

Second, Joy represents Levitin’s second category of songs. Dr. Levitin and Rodney Crowell of the band, The Police exchanged ideas about how music began. Crowell believes that the first song was a caveman’s versions of “You Are My Sunshine.” Other “joy” songs include: “God Bless America,” Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Log Blues.” Our brain encourages us by providing rewards and punishments using certain neurotransmitters. Rewards include neurotransmitters like serotonin,  and norepinephrine. Punishments include cortisol, activated by stress. Music of different kinds activates these neurotransmitters.

Third, Comfort follows. When the author dropped out of college to join a rock band, he was looking for comfort. Six songs inspired him to become a musician: “Autobahn,” Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “Revolver,” “Through My Sails,” “The Great Gig in the Sky,” and “Night and Day.” His father gave him the book, The X Factor which explains how people become experts in their own fields. George Plimpton the author of The X Factor believes that people who eventually are successful have had more failures than those who are unsuccessful.

Fourth, Knowledge. Levitin continues by explaining that he did not earn his B.A. until he was well into his thirties. Examples of this kind includes: “The A-B-C Song,“ “Patty Cake,” and jumping rope songs (“Down by the river..” and “Cinderella, dressed in yella…”). Levitan includes many other examples. From a neurodevelopmental viewpoint, we recognize that content is learned well with music, however, the problem is that music is also needed to recall that information because it is stored in the subdominant, rather than dominant hemisphere of the brain. Retrieval requires the use of the subdominant.

Fifth, Religion, reflects another unique feature of mankind. Different religions have their own songs. Levitin mentions Chinese music for the Chinese New Year, Jewish music for their celebrations and Christian songs like, Oh Happy Day” celebrating the day Jesus “washed away my sin.” Dr. Levitin believes that all religious ceremonies almost always include at least one of these ritualistic behavior: repetitive motor actions, bowing seven times, making the sign of the cross, folding and unfolding your hands in a certain way. As a believer in Christ, I belong to a church that practices the “regulative principle of worship” meaning that God has prescribed how we are to worship Him. What we include in our worship should be what the Bible teaches is to be part of worship. Most Christian churches practice the “normative principle of worship” which believes that if God has not prohibited a practice, it is appropriate. It behooves those who follow the “regulative principle” to frequently evaluate how we worship which I would think would eliminate or greatly reduce many or all of those features that Levitin cites.

Finally, in the sixth place, Love, Levitin illustrates this category of song with Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” and “Let me Be Your Teddy Bear,” plus “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “Sugar, Sugar.” Our author states, “The brain learns music and language because it is configured to acquire rules about how musical and linguistic elements are combined; its computational circuits (in the prefrontal cortex) ‘know’ rules about hierarchical organization and are primed to receive musical and linguistic input during the early years of development.”p.239

Like many of the books I have reviewed, much valuable information appeared in this one as well. However, I had to wade through much more that does not fit my worldview regarding the origin of God’s creation, specifically His special creation, man.

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