An ambitious title if there ever was, The World In Six Songs by Daniel Levitin, attempts to explain how music is so integral to human evolution that the entire human experience can be mostly summarized in six meta-songs. Daniel Levitin captured lots of imagination and excitement with his previous book ‘This Is Your Brain On Music’ so expectations were relatively high. Unfortunately, he did not deliver on two levels: 1) This book was not as well received as his first book, and 2) This book did not accomplish what it claimed to do.
I have always been intrigued when I see writers attempt to take a complex topic and try to simplify it. Daniel Levitin makes his own attempt by saying that entire human experience can be captured in six different songs: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Each has a different function, but all serve to bind us together and make us stronger as a species. He reinforces the truism that music is what makes us human. While I can’t disagree with him, music is only one function that makes us human, an important one, but not the only one. I can’t help but feel that because Levitin is so enthralled with his field, he is guilty of projecting the importance of music beyond what is rational.
Each of the six songs is treated to its own chapter, but he lost me right away as he starts off talking about how friendship music can be manifested to become ‘fear’ when it is played to strike fear in an enemy. Further manifestations are found where songs of sorrow are found in the section on comfort, etc. Really, Dr. Levitin? Is it six songs or twelve songs? I found this to be annoying and intellectually dishonest that he suddenly copped out to allow the six songs to possess different manifestations.
The strongest trait of this book is that Levitin’s writing style is eloquent and sincere. While this makes the book easy to access, it is problematic because his personable tone undermines his authority when he trying to make a major claim about music and the human condition. Other critics have written that he is guilty of name-dropping, which sticks since he ends up not writing the book as a scientist, but as an enthusiast. His reference to “my good friend Joni Mitchell,” or how “Sting confided to me…” and “when I was on-stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with Mel Torm….”, become testimonies that this book has become about him, and less about the fabled six songs we wanted to learn about.
He causes further derailment when he inserts long rambling personal stories, most of which have little if anything to do with the subject matter. While they can be seen by some as being amusing and humanizing, I found them to be a distraction and an irritant. I was annoyed he went into a irrelevant digression about his childhood experience of the Vietnam War. Levitin waxes nostalgic about anti-Vietnam War protest music and how it influenced political life in the Sixties and later. Yet. what does this have to do with the Six Songs. Nothing.
When he does take on the subject matter, I was disappointed with ridiculous broad statements that were offered up without any supporting evidence. He claimed that snapping fingers to music uses up cortisol (pg. 101), that cavemen used songs to remember geography (pg. 108), and it is more difficult to fake sincerity in music than in spoken language (pg. 141). Really? Where is the research to back these claims up? He seems to be drawing more on his experience working in the music industry than his work as a neuroscientist. Finally, he makes a critical error of focusing mostly on Western Pop songs as his examples of the Six Songs, even though his entire premise is that these Six Songs have been with us since the dawn of humanity. I expected to learn more about the anthropology of music, yet this was fundamentally lacking.
So Dr. Levitin ends up delivering us a book that is not about Six Songs, but one that is worth only one star.
(1 stars out of 5 – an atrocious waste of time. Dr. Levitin should know better than to masquerade personal opinion as a scientific treatise meant to help us understand the relationship between humans and music)