The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
By Daniel J. Levitin
The author of the surprise 2006 best seller This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin has an interesting split CV. On the one hand, he works at Montreal's McGill University in the brain-science department; on the other, he used to make music, playing with and producing a number of artists. (David Byrne, Mel Tormé, and Blue Oyster Cult are a motley trio cited in his author bio.) For a popular science writer, this kind of mixed pedigree should be a distinct advantage, but Levitin's new book often seems inhabited by a split sensibility itself.
The World in Six Songs has an intriguing premise. Levitin proposes that six types of song--those communicating friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love--have helped humans develop emotionally, mentally, and physically over the centuries. Levitin is careful not to go overboard with his claims (you don't get to run a neuroscience lab if you do), and he makes his scientific arguments with an even hand, rendering his points with surprisingly conversational prose. And while his penchant for throwing in anecdotes taken from life to make points is corny in more than one spot (no more so than when he visits the Montreal hotel room where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their 1969 "Bed-In for Peace"), it does serve well to bridge some of the author's more technical aspects. He also hits the occasional bull's-eye, as with an anecdote about a farcical encounter with a Santa Barbara, Calif., scientist who insists on his test case's psychic powers despite her percentage of correct guesses being the same as "would have been guessed by a machine generating random numbers."
Levitin is certainly trustworthy about neuroscience, though his judgments about music are scattershot, from positing that "Non-drug-users found solace in . . . Lennon's 'Cold Turkey'" (not likely), to spending two pages effusing over his friend Sting's juvenile anti-Cold War song "Russians": "The lyrics roll off the tongue, easily. They're easy to say, and they feel good in the mouth," Levitin writes with a straight face of lines such as, "How can I save my little boy/ From Oppenheimer's deadly toy?" Too often, Six Songs gives the sense of a professor trying too hard to play at rock star. The irony is that when Levitin stays in the lab he's a lot more alluring.