Daniel Levitin used to be a record producer and a professional musician. His fascination with how we grasp music, emotionally and physically, led to a new career as a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He’s followed an earlier book, This is Your Brain on Music, with The World in Six Songs.
I’m not far into it, but it’s already a “hey, listen to this” experience. (Want to see the first chapter?)
Levitin contends that music isn’t simply a distraction or a pastime, but “a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language…”
The six songs of the title aren’t specific songs; they’re categories for how we fit music into our lives. At the start, he says, he was trying to figure out what all the different forms of song–work songs, love songs, counting rhymes, nearly the entire work of Bobby McFerrin–had in common.
Anthropologist Jim Ferguson (no relation that I’m aware of) told Levitin that was the wrong question.
Quoting the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, Jim persuaded me that the right question to ask, in trying to understand music’s universality, is not what all musics have in common, but how they differ….
it is in the particulars, the nuances, the overwhelming variety of ways we express ourselves that one can come to understand best what it means to be a musical human.
Levitin sees six types of songs as having shaped human nature: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Interestingly to me, his definition of “song” is “any music that people make, with or without melody, with or without lyrics.”
I like the inherent complexity (and possible paradox) in that. “Without lyrics,” for example, opens the door for the effect that deliberate rhythm may have had on human behavior and the evolution of the brain.
I also like insights he includes from Pete Seeger. Pete pointed out that not all music is intended to be popular.
“Among American Indians,” Seeger explained, “a young man got his eye on a girl and he would make a reed flute and compose a melody. And when she came down to get a pail of water at the brook, he would hide in the weeds and play her his turn… It was her special tune. A tune wasn’t thought of as being free for everybody. It belonged to one person. You might sing somebody’s song after they’re dead to recall them, but each person had a private song…”
In addition, Seeger says, the power of music comes from its combination of form, structure, and meaning. “Ordinary speech doesn’t have quite that much organization….and this becomes intriguing, something you can remember.”
Levitin suggests that before there was language, the human brain didn’t have the full capacity to learn langauge. That capacity emerged as the brain worked with sounds and verbalizations. The new structure, he says, made possible three cognitive abilities:
- Perspective-taking: we could think about our own thoughts, and could realize that others have thoughts different from our own.
- Representation: we could think and talk about things that aren’t present.
- Rearrangement: we can “combine, recombine, and impose hierarchical order” on things in the world around us.
I’ve got a number of music- or language-related thoughts circulating. This post is the first verse.