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


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.