Music Monday: The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin, A Book Review

Can the World be described by six songs? If so, what would the topics be and why? The question Daniel Levitin tries to answer in his new book “The World in Six Songs” actually appears to be can songs be divided into six categories? He obviously thinks so and his six themes are Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion and Love. The book is more than that, as he also describes how music effects us, emotional and mentally. He, like many musicians, myself included, is convinced that music does have a positive effect on us:

For example, we know that singing releases endorphins (again, a “feel good” hormone) but why is not known; and this lack of causal understanding makes many scientists uncomfortable about the connection between singing and endorphins.

However, he accepts that this means that he has a bias when it comes to research:

Scientists are in the business of wanting proof for everything, and I find myself caught somewhere in the metaphysical middle on this issue. As a musician, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the utterly ineffable, indescribable power of music.

But unfortunately current research showing this effect of music just has not been done, or done badly if it has been done at all:

On the research front, many of the studies on the effectiveness of music therapy are not performed to rigorous scientific standards, and so their claims remain unproven.

In fact, he goes on to compare some of the music therapy research with research done with potential psychic sense and not positively.

His thesis is a continuation of the thesis first presented to us in his first book, “Your Brain on Music” in which he totally disagrees with Steven Pinker who refers to music as “auditory cheesecake” meaning that our appreciation of music is an enjoyable side effect of language development. When I first read this quote from Pinker I decided that Pinker must be tone deaf and obviously has never MADE music himself. So it seems that I share the same bias as Levitin.  Levitin does suggest that since neurochemical states in the brain motivate us to act and emotion and motivations evolved together; the fact that music makes us feel good it motivates us to… fall in love, feel happy, get more energy and go to work, learn tasks, follow religion and so on.

But how does this fit with songs?  What is a song? Anything sung, apparently:

By definition, “a song” is a musical composition intended or adapted for singing. One thing the definition leaves unclear is who does the adapting. Does the adaptation have to be constructed by a professional composer or orchestrator, as when Jon Hendricks took Charlie Parker solos and added scat lyrics (nonsense syllables) to them, or when John Denver took Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and added lyrics to the melody? I don’t think so. If I sing the intro guitar riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones (as my friends and I used to do frequently when we were eleven years old), I am the one who has done the adapting, and even if separated from the vocal parts of that song, this melodic line then stands alone and becomes a “song”: by virtue of my friends and I singing it. More to the point, you can sing “As Time Goes By” with the syllable “la” and never sing the words – you may have never have seen Casablanca and you may not even know that the composition has words – and it becomes a song by virtue of you singing it.

He concentrates mostly on popular music because he is mostly interested in what music makes us tick:

I’m particularly interested in that portion of musical compositions that people remember, carry around in their heads long after the sound has died out, sounds that people try to repeat later in time, to play for other; the sounds that comfort them, invigorate them, and draw them closer together.

The discussion in the book was hard to follow as I lacked the depth of music knowledge required. It should have come with a CD. I have since discovered that clips of the songs are on the book’s website. Unfortunately, the book I read is back at the library. Perhaps when it comes out it paperback and I have time to read it leisurely, over the summer rather than during the first month of a new semester at a new college teaching new classes, I might try again and work through some of his arguments.

I enjoyed “This is Your Brain on Music” which was about the neuroscience behind our responses to music. It was fascinating. I tried to review it but found the detail overwhelming. I still have part 2 of my review in my drafts folder!

Other References


Sunday Science Snippet: Microcosm by Carl Zimmer

This book was great at bringing new biology, molecular biology and microbiology concepts together.  As a food scientist I know a little about each of these topics but not how the details fit together.  Now having read Microcosm I have a much better understanding of the details.  Life is very impressive and Carl makes it even more so while addressing many topical issues including evolution and biotechnology.  He manages to address these strongly but without bias so the reader is left to make up their own minds (or not) on the issues.

The section about biofilms was the most interesting as this was new science for me. A biofilm occurs when bacteria, such as E. coli, grow together in a huge mass.  This enables them to survive more demanding conditions that when freely floating single cellular organisms.

There are lots of reviews online. Probably the best place to start is Carl’s website for Microcosm, followed by various reviews (1, 2, 3, etc.) and Scienceblogs’ bookclub discussed Microcosm, which concentrated on the New Science of Life aspect of the book.

There is even a YouTube video:

In Defense of Food Review Part 4: Part III: Getting Over Nutritionism

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, January, 2008, Penguin Press, p 244, US$21.95, ISBN: 978-1-59520-145-5

This is the last part of my review of this book. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 review the earlier sections of the book. This section gives advice about how to go forward and relearn our relationship with food.

So what can we do to improve our diet and escape from nutritionism?

“People eating a western diet [grr] are prone to a complex of chronic diseases that seldom strike people eating more traditional diets.”


Stop eating the Western diet.

I would if I knew what you meant by it [see Review Part 3 for my rant on”Western Diet”]. To stop eating badly, Pollan acknowledges, requires us to change our way of thinking about food which is very challenging as the western diet is every in our food environment. Additionally, we have lost the cultural tools we need to judge what is good to eat. Even avoiding processed food by buying fresh or whole food means that we need to be aware of hidden industrialization such as beef raised in a feedlot and given antibiotics and hormones.

Pollan started his book with the advice: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. In this section of the book, he breaks down his advice under those three headings.

Eat Food.

Obvious really. Remember, however, that Pollan distinguishes between food and edible-food like substances. So to guide us he has come up with some tips, some of which discuss below:

Don’t Eat Anything Your Great Grandmother Wouldn’t Recognize as Food.

In other words, look back to your family traditions of past generations and try to eat that way. I do have few issues with that as my great grandmothers would not recognize many of the new fruits I love as food. I am not even sure that oranges would be familiar to some of them. Bananas and mangoes almost definitely were not in Britain at that time. I am lucky in that one side of the family come from central Europe and another from France (and Wales and England) so I have more choices of what to eat than if they were only from England.

It also means that I should be buying my food on a more regular basis. No once a week or once a month grocery shopping as storage would have been limited in the 19th Century as there were no ice boxes or refrigerators.

I should also be eating more seasonally; no green beans or strawberries in the middle of winter. In fact, I only like strawberries for about two weeks a year, which is the way I grew up eating them. For those two weeks that English strawberries, as opposed to Spanish, were available, we would feast on them, eating them almost every night with sugar and cream and make jam with the rest.

Avoid Food Products Containing Ingredients That are a)Unfamiliar b)Unpronounceable c)more than five in number or that include d)High Fructose Corn Syrup.

So you won’t be able to eat the cake I just made at home because it contains flour, sugar, vanilla, water, baking powder, baking soda, cocoa and vinegar. It is also iced which adds another couple of ingredients. Additionally, this bread is out.

Admittedly I did have a student who had the policy of not eating foods that had more than 10 ingredients which makes more sense than five.

Oh, yeah. High fructose corn syrup is the new ogre. It is not any worse than sucrose (table sugar) but that is an argument for another day.

Avoid Food Products That Make Health Claims

Yeah, I can deal with this one. Remember Cheerios never contained much fat and some “low” fat foods are as high or even higher in calories than the full fat version. I personally prefer natural yoghurt that is full fat; I do not need so much as a low fat version.

Get Out of the Supermarket Whenever Possible

Does Trader Joe’s or Wholefoods or even my local Natural Food Coop count here? Mind you, Pollan is well known for his scorn of Wholefoods Market.

Farmers’ Markets can be great fun as can local farm stands. I was excited to see about four or five farm stands ON MY WAY to my new job. They are not open yet – it is the middle of winter here still – but I am looking forward to stopping on my way home later in the year.

Mostly Plants

I already eat mostly plants and as I commented in Part 3 this should be eat only plants. Oh yeah, eat fungi and yeast too. Just stop eating meat and fish. Perhaps limit them only once a week? Please, pretty, please.

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves

Not sure where broccoli and cauliflower and okra and eggplant and zucchini and squash and potatoes and and… and… fit in here.

Phytochemicals, fiber, and antioxidants present in plants are great for our health. These include nutrients that nutritional scientists have yet to realize that we need.

Pollan cannot find a compelling health reason to exclude meat from his diet.He does suggest limiting meat consumption by making it a side dish instead the centerpiece of the meal. Additionally, he does point out that industrial meet production, especially in the US, is brutal and unnecessarily cruel. Environmental and ethical reasons are not discussed at length in his book; if you want to know more read Peter Singer’s book. Remember, however:

You Are What What You Eat Eats Too.

If you have the space, buy a freezer

Especially good for buying food in season when there is a glut and having it available year round. Freezing vegetables and fruit is relatively easy and causes less nutritional damage than most other preservation methods.

Eat Well-Grown Good From Healthy Soils

Not necessarily organic as not all small producers are certified for organic farming. Also we have a number of fruit producers that do everything right – it seems, but the organic requirements for fruit are so stringent that it would be impossible to have decent fruit or any fruit if they were followed. Get to know your local food producer and find out what they do to produce their food.

Not Too Much

French paradox. I might write about this in another post. At least appreciate food as well as the French do: Linger over meals, savor each mouthful and use high quality ingredients.

Pay More. Eat Less.

Portion sizes – we tend to eat what we are given rather than what we need. I will eat a whole bag of chips (crisps) whatever size rather it weighs 60 g or 30 g. I know as I just did this. I knew I should only eat about half the packet of the 30 g bag as the label said there were two servings inside but the whole pack disappeared.

At a recent one day conference, they handed out 14 oz bags of chips, this is one serving, but this seemed really tiny.

There has been lots of research showing that animals on a calorie restricted diet live longer. Eating less appears to cut back on cell division and reduces the production of free radicals and other toxic chemicals in our bodies.

The tip I learnt many years ago, probably first through yoga, not that I take any notice today, is to eat until you are 70% full, Pollan suggests 80%. The question is to learn how to recognize this and not allow the 20-30% empty feeling to make you eat more.

Eat Meals

Stop snacking. Pollan raises this interesting point:

“I may be showing my age, but didn’t there used to be at least a mild social taboo against the between-meal snack? Well, it is gone. Amercians today mark time all day long with nibbles of food and sips of soft drinks, which must be constantly at their sides, lest they expire during the haul between breakfast and lunch.”

Try Not to Eat Alone

This has to be his hardest piece of advice for me. As I am not meant to eat out as much, to avoid the temptations of the western diet offered by restaurants, I should prepare food at home where I live alone.

After reading this, I gathered a group of friends and we cooked a meal together. We made this pizza and had a fun evening. I must try to do this on a regular basis:Cook and eat together evenings”.

Eat Slowly

This goes with my comment about enjoying your food like the French.

Cook and, if you can, plant a garden

I do this one already and the exercise from gardening helps with the weight gain, except the fresh air makes me hungry. Even a window box full of salad would benefit your diet.

This was his final bit of advice and he concluded by reminding us that food is more than the nutrients it contains:

[…] food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight. I am thinking of the relationship between the plants and the soil, between the grower and the plants and animals he or she tends, between the cook and the growers who supply the ingredients, and between the cook and the people who will soon come to the table to enjoy the meal. It is a large community to nourish and be nourished by.

Food is a culture, your own unique culture; food is your history. In addition, if you garden you realize that food has its own history – where did the variety of tomato come from? What about that corn, or that pepper – so sweet having just come in from the garden straight to the kitchen. Food tastes so much nicer when it is less than an hour old.

While I agree with Pollan on bits of his advice, there are some bits missing:

Pollan lives in Northern California where the food supply is somewhat different to the rest of the US let alone the rest of the World. Southern California is probably the only place with a better food supply. Remember they have asparagus available in March – mine comes up in May. This makes eating locally a whole lot easier.

If you are interested in gardening especially somewhere with a less welcoming climate, read Gussow’s This Organic Life. She discusses the issues of trying to garden in suburban New York. Personally, I would ignore the double digging information – raised beds are the best way to go especially if you live on clay soil like I do.

Exercise. Totally ignored by Pollan. The equation, as I have mentioned earlier is:

Calories in – Calories out = Energy balance.

So follow Pollan’s advice as given in his book and, in addition, walk, ride a bike, jump rope or buy a mower you have to push or do something to get more exercise.

Remember as Pollan says in his introduction:

“You may well, and rightly, wonder who am I to tell you how to eat? Here I am advising you to reject the advice of scientists and industry – and blithely go on to offer my own advice. So on whose authority do I purport to speak? I speak mainly on the authority of tradition and common sense. Most of what we need to know about how to eat we already know, or once did until we allowed the nutrition experts and advertisers to shake our confidence in common sense, tradition, the testimony of out senses, and the wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers.”

He does not necessarily know the answers, so start asking the questions and looking for answers yourself. Start listening to your body and learn to recognize when what you would like is a Snickers Bar, but what you need is a glass of water and an apple.

Eat well, stay in touch, and have a good life.*


with apoplogises to Garrison Keillor: “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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Books: Your Brain on Music

I am reading lots of books about music at the moment. It is becoming a bit of an obsession. I read Eric Clapton’s autobio [bleuh] and followed that up with Bob Dylan’s [wow]. I might review them in the future and explain my asides. For now I am reading Oliver Sack‘s Musicophilia and last month I read This is your brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. There is too much information in this book to write just one post about it. So this is my first. Do not hold your breath for the second. Just in case you have not noticed, science posts are sporadic around here.

The major elements that Levitin considers to make up music are pitch, timbre, key, harmony, loudness, rhythm, meter and tempo.

A discrete musical sound is usually called a tone. Tone and note typically refer to the same thing unless you are a scientist or musician when “note” refers to the thing on a score of music.

Pitch is the primary way that music can convey emotions – a single high note can trigger excitement and a single low note may trigger sadness. Different instruments have different ranges in pitch available to them. For example, the piano keys range from 27.0 hertz as its lowest note to 4186 htz at the high end. These images show the ranges for different instruments and the human voice.


musical ranges

another musical range image

Arranging pitches in particular ways leads to the formation of scales and these also can effect our moods. Major scales are happy and triumphant and minor scales are sad or defeated. Key is related to the hierarchy of importance that exists between pitches within a musical piece and harmony is the relationship between pitches being played at the same time.

The most important feature about music is timbre as it is the principal feature that separates the voices of the different instruments. Timbre is caused by presence of the overtones, which in turn are influenced by the material making up the instrument. For example, wood is less dense than metal so gives lighter overtones. I was always proud of the fact that I could do this as a child – I was especially delighted because I could tell an oboe from a clarinet, apparently difficult instruments to tell apart. Timbre also allows us to recognize the voice of a friend from that of some one unknown.


Loudness is purely a psychological construct that relates to the physical amplitude of a tone. Loudness is partly the volume and also how the dynamics change within a musical piece. Brahms, who I am singing at the moment, deliberately changes the dynamics from loud (forte) to soft (piano) from note to note to emphasize his point. He’ll build up a crescendo to forte and the next note is sung piano. Beethoven is another composer who uses contrasting dynamics in a similar way.

Rhythm refers to the durations of a series of notes and to the way they are grouped together (duplets, triplets). Tempo is the overall speed of a piece of music and meter is created by our brains by extracting information from rhythm and loudness cues, refering to ways in which tones are grouped with one another across time. For example, waltzes have meters in three and a march has a meter of either two or four.

Introduction to music and neuroscience to follow.