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More cacophony than harmony

The World In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

  • Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton Books: 2008. 333 pp. $25.95 9780525950738 | ISBN: 978-0-5259-5073-8

Six songs seems a small repertoire to address so grandiose a theme. Yet Daniel Levitin contentiously argues for six classes of song in his quickly published follow-on from This Is Your Brain On Music. He purports to explain neuroscientific concepts by framing them around song themes of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.

Notwithstanding his claim that he “endeavoured to include examples from music [from] all over the world”, Levitin, a recording producer turned academic psychologist, remains tenacious in his devotion to pop music. Granted, he alludes to a love for Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and mentions Mozart occasionally, but other musical genres seem of far less importance to him. Listing “the musical events that changed the way I would hear for the rest of my life”, every one is popular: Sting, Cannonball Adderley and Paul Simon are among his favourites. It would be unthinkable for the author of a book on, say, the 'pictorial brain' or the 'literary brain' to ignore the greatest examples of those arts or to reveal so enthusiastically that his tastes seem not to have matured since his adolescence.

Levitin writes for a US audience of a certain age that has never outgrown its attachment to the music of its youth. There is little in The World in Six Songs to acknowledge those with matured or non-American musical tastes, which creates difficulties when he writes about “us” having “common ground” or indulges in such hyperbole as “our truth detectors go wild”. Who, apart from US baby-boomers, might comprise this “us”?

Far from restricting himself to six songs, and setting aside that a different person might classify those songs differently, the author's repertoire of musical examples is vast. His collection of 'friends' seems equally extensive. The text is littered with names — musicians and research academics among them — and their mention often seems calculated to impress rather than enlighten. Every significant thinker in his field sounds like a trusted intimate.

This makes Levitin look fortunate but, even if it were true, makes him intellectually vulnerable. One is unlikely to be critical of the work of such 'friends'. And so it proves. When the breathless pace of his prose leads him to make glib generalizations, a check of a few sources creates serious doubts about the way in which he summarizes their research findings. Perhaps he has not had time to assimilate them adequately. Levitin's text gives the impression of an assignment by a highly intelligent student who has done so much preliminary reading and assembled so many references that he cannot discipline himself to omit a single one. Not all research is good or worthwhile and, in such a book, more is not necessarily better. Stricter selectivity would have helped.

The writing is a problem, too. Much of it reads as if it was dictated into a machine and given the most cursory of edits. Many sentences are needlessly opaque. Some paragraphs are trivial and others are contradictory; his accounts of outcomes of experiments differ — a serious flaw — and incompatible 'facts' are given, such as about the sensitivity of auditory hair cells. In places the writing seems lazy, as with his over-use of the phrase “neurochemical soup”. One questions his understanding of some material, such as an assertion that “grammar specifies rules ... based on where in the sentence the elements appear”, which betrays an unawareness of Latin and German. Worst of all are the pages of self-indulgent digression from his grand, and essentially unprovable, thesis that “the musical brain created human nature”. The book should have been much shorter and better constructed.

Why has Levitin written it? I suspect that it was at the publisher's urging, after the success of his far superior earlier book. The reader's time would be better spent with that previous book or by engaging with the research articles that Levitin draws on. One would then also be spared the boastful confusion of friends and anecdotes, the sheer volume of which the scientific brain, let alone the musical brain, struggles to deal with.

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Carmody, J. More cacophony than harmony. Nature 454, 1051–1052 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/4541051b

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