THE BLOG

The World In Six Songs, Dan Levitin's New Book

09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am not a scientist, and I didn't especially like science in school. Something about the Krebs cycle and the free electrons in isotopes (whatever they were) left me cold. I do read a lot of non-fiction, mostly political books, as part of my new "day job" of helping to raise money and consciousness for progressives running for office. But in my former life I ran a record company and I consider myself to have had a lifelong obsession with music and art.

I first met Dan Levitin in 1981 when he was playing in The Mortals, a San Francisco punk band that had one or two songs I liked. I introduced him to some friends of mine who were in bands and he produced them back in the 80s. In the 90s he went to college and got a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Over the years, he's invited me to lecture his classes at Stanford and McGill.

When his first book This Is Your Brain on Music, came out, I read it first because of the cleverness of the title's play on the assinine Nancy Reagan-era "This is your brain on drugs" ad campaign. That book taught me a lot of things that I had always wondered about -- not just what a scale is, or why some musicians succeed where others fail, but also the way that music is studied in scientific laboratories (it's not just poor monkeys being given electrical shocks by soulless nerds in white coats).

The World in Six Songs sounded to me like a terrible idea for a book. I'm not sure what I expected -- maybe a list of six songs that Levitin felt were the best in the world, or the six songs that shaped human culture. The world doesn't need more lists and music doesn't work that way -- people's tastes are too subjective. I decided to read the first few pages just to see where the book was going, and I planned to put it down and get back to work. I had better things to do. Obama had just become the de facto nominee for 2008 and was already tacking right, and I was busy tracking dozens of critical local races across the country where a progressive candidate was pitted against a truly vile, corrupt, reactionary opponent. The world needed some electoral change... not silly lists. I picked it up at breakfast and figured I would put it down before I was even done with my melon.

Sometimes things don't work out like you planned them. By lunch I was in the middle of Chapter 3 and I had already learned how music helped to form cooperative bonds, the very sort that were necessary to create societies, about the chemical changes that take place in the brain when people sing together, and about how music that you like (not any music will do) can mimic the functions of anti-depressants. The musical examples ranged from Abba (John McCain's faves) to Zappa, and from Tuvan throat singing to 18th century opera and the theme song from Ren & Stimpy. (And believe it or not, there's a connection between all these.)

The phone rang. I had to take care of some urgent business for a campaign Blue America was doing to defend against some lies from the shady GOP front group, Freedom's Watch. An hour later I was back in the book and reading about the honest signal hypothesis, the idea from biology that some forms of commucation are impossible to fake. Levitin cites evidence that it is easy to lie with language (Really??? I didn't need to be reminded given my current career is trying to oust lying politicians, and that my former career was in the music business; enough said about that), but that it is harder to lie in music. That is, we can tell whether a singer is being sincere or not and we respond to that on an emotional, and unconscious level. This makes music, historically, something exceptionally valuable in the evolution of human nature: An honest signal. Music is a kind of truth serum. Maybe if politicians had to sing instead of making speeches we'd be better at picking the good ones (Bulworth is still a terrible movie).

There were a few places where Levitin did present lists of songs, but he did so in a kind of self-mocking way -- he wasn't self important about them... The six songs of the title, it turns out, are the six ways (read: six kinds of songs) that Levitin believes humans have used throughout time to manage social, emotional, and cultural development. We use music to comfort babies for example. We get together with people and sing or drum or strum and all of a sudden we feel a special bond of friendship. In the Amazon our ancestral cousins used to sing about how to make a canoe.

That passing on of knowledge function was one of the most interesting because I often have songs stuck in my head throughout the day. Levitin explains that this is actually a clue as to the evolutionary origins of music. Songs were meant to get stuck up there, and music and brains co-evolved among other reasons to pass down information from person to person, and from generation to generation, before there was writing.

As the writers Scott Turow and Elizabeth Gilbert have said, the book is exquisitely well-written and easy to read, serving up a great deal of scientific information in a gentle way for those of us who are-- or just think we are-- a bit science-phobic. More than that, the book is fun. Who would have thought that a scientific hypothesis could be supported by the "Slinky" song or by Dylan's "Death is Not the End?" The last chapter is a love song to love songs, a sort of Valentine to some of the best songs ever sung. Read it if you have ever wondered where music came from, why we have it, and what it really does for us. Pastor Rick should have gotten Obama and McCain to sing so even his congregants could have seen who was more sincere and who was pandering to them.

YOU MAY LIKE