- IONS Film Project
Publications Book Reviews
How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
Reviewed by Derk Richardson on Sept. 1, 2008
In his second compelling exploration of the relation-ship between music and gray matter, Daniel Levitin—author of the best-selling This Is Your Brain on Music— argues that we have all had our wits indelibly affected by the songs we sing and hear. A neuroscientist who focuses on musical perception and cognition, and a former professional musician and record producer, Levitin now digs into the evolutionary hardwiring of the brain and the way music, specifically songs with lyrics, “has been there to guide the development of human nature.” His grandest claims, that music is “a core element in our identity as a species” and that “music made societies and civilizations possible,” might seem self-evident to baby boomers for whom Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Motown, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, among countless others, provided the soundtrack to their lives. And while Levitin is a cultural product of that same era (he references Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, and Sting as acquaintances and primary sources), he sets his sights on every human generation that has walked the face of the Earth.
As Levitin noted in his previous book, some evolutionary scientists have dismissed music as an ultimately disposable “extra”; he counters that argument with his own, that natural selection has favored “musical brains” from the outset. It’s as if the brain, to quote the psychedelic comedy troupe Firesign Theater, were “waiting for the electrician or someone like him,” and the electrician turned out to be music, with six primary tools: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Levitin outlines how each category of song has contributed to the ability of humans to live together, sometimes
in harmony, on the planet. “Synchronous, coordinated song and movement created the strongest bonds between early humans,” he writes in the chapter titled “Friendship,” and over time made political structure possible, eased tensions, and created a sense of “we.” Similarly, songs of joy facilitate “cooperative groups,” while comfort songs are crucial in mitigating sadness and alleviating grief. Songs of knowledge make it possible to encode valuable information in ways that are “more honest than spoken language.” Religious songs reinforce the sense of order for which seekers turn to spiritual rituals and ceremonies, and love songs embody nothing less than “the most important cornerstone of civilized society.”
To support his thesis, Levitin draws heavily on recent scientific studies of the brain. He discusses the relationship between playing and listening to music and the release of such hormones as dopamine, oxytocin, and seratonin, stating that “song activates more regions of the brain than anything else we know.” He argues that the “three foundations of the musical brain”—perspective taking, representation, and rearrangement—are pivotal to making humans unique among species. It is all fascinating stuff that might be even more convincing if Levitin didn’t inject such qualifiers as “perhaps” and “I believe” quite so often.
Fortunately for lay readers and music lovers, Levitin makes The World in Six Songs eminently readable with personal stories and anecdotes. A reference to “Sting and I” might feel like name-dropping, but you won’t soon forget the saga of Eddie the Dishwasher and the fate of his mix-tape in the workplace. And it’s hard to argue with some of Levitin’s choices of musical heroes, including Joni Mitchell, Nashville songwriter Guy Clark, and jazz pianist Bill Evans. If the thread of his thesis occasionally gets lost in convoluted supporting evidence, it rolls into a big, radiant ball in the concluding chapter on love. Indeed, those looking for hopeful signs about humankind’s future on this war-plagued, resource-challenged orb might optimistically deduce that all you need are love songs, for, as Levitin writes, they “imprint themselves on our brains like no others” and “speak of our greatest human aspirations and loftiest qualities . . . of setting aside our own ego and desires in service of something great—of caring about someone or something more than we care about ourselves.”