Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Review of Daniel J. Levitin's The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

Sounds like an interesting book, even if the reviewer isn't so thrilled (he recommends the book, in the end). This is copied from a pdf, so sorry if the line-breaks are a little funky.

From Evolutionary Psychology:
What is Music for? Perhaps to Give Evolutionary Psychologists Work

A Review of Daniel J. Levitin, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Dutton, New York, 2008, 336 pp., US$25.95, ISBN 978-0-525-95073-8 (hardcover)

Lincoln G. Craton, Department of Psychology, Stonehill College, Massachusetts,

Interest in the psychology of music is on the rise. For instance, membership in the
Society for Music Perception and Cognition (SMPC) is growing and attendance at its
biannual conference is way up. As readers of Evolutionary Psychology know very well, when an inherently interesting field takes off, related books for the lay reader often do too. McGill University cognitive neuroscientist Dan Levitin’s 2006 bestseller, This is Your Brain on Music, and last year’s bestseller Musicophilia by neurologist Oliver Sacks, are the two books that I have been recommending to friends and colleagues who like music (who doesn’t?) and who want to know what the scientific buzz is all about.

Given its eyebrow-raising title, readers of this journal may be curious to learn about
Levitin’s latest book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human
Nature. Whereas Brain on Music is about what goes on in the mind/brain when we listen to music, Six Songs is about where music comes from. Because Levitin is both a top-notch researcher and one of the coolest guys you could meet—a rock musician turned record producer turned cognitive scientist who weaves amusing personal anecdotes and conversations with famous musicians into his narratives—Six Songs should play well with a general audience. Leading researchers in music cognition are already singing its praises—Jamshed Bharucha of Tufts University calls it a “tour de force.” What will evolutionary psychologists say? The World in Six Songs might be read as an invitation—an entertaining collection of just-so stories just begging for empirical test.

I confess that I sort of hoped that Six Songs would be a compendium of all the most
important thinking about evolution and music. It isn’t. For instance, Levitin is clearly
arguing that music is an adaptation, but he doesn’t cite all the important proponents of this view (Geoffrey Miller is conspicuously absent). He also actively avoids addressing the opposition. I’m referring of course to Steven Pinker, who has suggested that music might just be “auditory cheesecake”—an evolutionary by-product of adaptive mechanisms that evolved for other reasons (language, auditory scene analysis, emotional calls, habitat selection, motor control, etc.; Pinker, 1997). But both these omissions are justifiable—Levitin promotes Millers’s sexual selection account (Miller, 2000) in the last chapter of Brain on Music, where he also responds at length to the cheesecake challenge, arguing against Pinker as if the very existence of the field of music cognition depends on it. (Does it? Personally, I’m interested either way.) The jury is still out in the adaptation-cheesecake debate. Pinker has returned to working on language development and apparently he has not
responded to Brain on Music or to other recent anti-cheesecake bids by music researchers such as David Huron and Ian Cross, who show up quite a bit in Six Songs. However, Levitin did mention on a recent webcast that Pinker will appear briefly in a PBS show about music featuring Levitin and musician Bobby McFerrin, scheduled to air in March.

Rather than surveying the field, Levitin seems to be trying to build his own case in
The World in Six Songs for two main claims suggested by his title: 1) the novel proposal that “there are six kinds of songs, six ways that we use music in our lives, six broad categories of music” (p. 6); and 2) the more familiar adaptationist hypothesis that “those of our ancestors who just happened to feel good during musical activities are the ones who survived to pass on the gene [I assume he intends ‘gene’ to be plural here] that gave rise to these feelings” (p.20). To me, a crucial point to notice is that he links these two claims with a third, 3) that “through a process of co-evolution of brains and music, through the structures throughout our cortex and neocortex, from our brain stem to the prefrontal cortex, from the limbic system to the cerebellum, music uniquely insinuates itself into our heads. It does this in six distinctive ways, each of them with its own evolutionary basis [my italics]” (p. 39).

The first claim, that there are six types of songs, is bound to ruffle some feathers.
Partly, that’s because it is bound to be misinterpreted. The six song categories are
friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. My favorite aversive response to the six-song thesis comes from the book’s website ( by music icon Joni Mitchell:
This is the worst idea for a book I've ever heard - it makes me want to vomit. The idea encapsulates the very worst part of Western thought. It makes a purely Socratic distinction about something that isn't intellectualizable. [One week later:] I take it back - I'm sorry! This is great!
Several preliminary points might save readers some interpretive effort here. First,
Levitin’s claim is psychological, not musicological—he’s not saying that there are say, six kinds of chord progressions or six musical forms. Second, the categories are not intended to be mutually exclusive. A piece of music can serve more than one function. Third, I take it that the claim refers not to what a song is about, but how it is used. A given song can serve different purposes for different people or in different contexts. Lyrics can provide clues about a song’s intended function, but they are not decisive.

Fourth, the category names are just monikers and should be construed broadly. For
instance, “friendship” songs are not just tunes about our pals (“I get by with a little help from my friends…”). They are the much larger category of dance-songs that involve synchronized movement of individuals in a group--this includes war or attack dances, defensive singing vigils against impending attack, hunting songs, work songs, and songs that promote social bonding through collective movement. Interpreting the categories broadly, we can sort songs that might not at first seem to fit into the big six, so that, for instance, an angry antisocial heavy metal tune that might initially seem to require a new category of “anger song” can actually be seen as a friendship song that unites like-minded metalheads as they headbang to Metallica in concert.

That said, readers are still liable to wonder just what the six-songs claim really amounts to. Isn’t this just a neat organizational theme for a trade book? After all, the
chapters are organized around the six categories, and I couldn’t help but notice that Levitin credits his editor with the initial concept in his acknowledgements. My sense, though, is that he is putting this forward as a serious scientific proposal. Is it testable? Levitin will say that he has already done so by basing the categories on hundreds, maybe thousands, of songs across cultures and historical time periods. He discusses many of these as examples throughout the book, but he doesn’t offer any kind of quantitative support. It is certainly possible that others will look at the same “data” and come up with a different taxonomy. Seemingly, we can each put the six-song thesis to the test individually: Driving into work today, I was listening to a recording of duets by two jazz guitarists. Which of the six categories applies? (I’m pretty sure it’s joy.) This is definitely a fun game to play, but what exactly is at stake?

The six-song theory begins to make more sense when considered along with the
second and third claims above, that music—both the performance and appreciation of it—is indeed an adaptation, and that the six types of songs have distinct evolutionary origins.
Read the whole review.

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