The World in Six Songs

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What People Are Saying

  • "Music seems to have an almost willful, evasive quality, defying simple explanation, so that the more we find out, the more there is to know, leaving its power and mystery intact, however much we may dig and delve. Daniel's book is an eloquent and poetic exploration of this paradox. There may be no simple answer or end in sight, but the ride is nonetheless a thrilling one, especially in the company of a writer who is an accomplished musician, a poet, a hard-nosed scientist, and someone who can still look upon the universe with a sense of wonder."

    ——— Sting

  • "To try to cover the meaning of music throughout the history of mankind to how we still use it everyday is extraordinarily ambitious. Combining musical expertise, psychology, anthropology and evolutionary science, Daniel Levitin's Six Songs has accomplished this astonishing task"

    ——— John Appleton

  • "Enthralling. An attempt to answer the enthralling question of why and how humans needed music to evolve. Levitin's answers are always interesting."

    ——— The Sunday Times London

  • "I was skeptical when I began reading. The stated goal seemed outlandish. But by the time I was about one-third the way into The World in Six Songs, I realized just how powerful it is. It really is a tour de force. It is exquisitely written, and brings together a vast array of knowledge, tying things together in creative ways, while always remaining accessible. This promises to be not only another widely read hit, but also an important document for the field of music cognition."

    ——— Jamshed Bharucha

  • "This wonderful, lucid book takes on one of the great eternal questions: Why is there music? What does music do for humanity—for individual development and for a culture--that in turn accounts for its existence in every known society? Daniel Levitin is not only the preeminent expert in answering such questions, but one of those unique writers about science who understands his field so profoundly that he can make the complex straightforward. This is an exciting, revelatory book."

    ——— Scott Turow

  • "Daniel Levitin writes about music with all the exuberance of a die-hard fan, and all the insight of a natural-born scientist. This is a fascinating, entertaining book, and some of its most inventive themes may stay stuck in your head forever, something like a well-loved song."

    ——— Elizabeth Gilbert

  • "Daniel Levitin takes the most sophisticated ideas that exist about the brain and mind, applies them to the most emotionally direct art we have, our songs, and makes beautiful music of the two together."

    ——— Adam Gopnik

  • "Why can a song make you cry in a matter of seconds? From classical to contemporary music, SIX SONGS is the only book that explains why. With†original and awe-inspiring†insights into the nature of†human artistry, it's an irresitably entertaining and thought provoking journey. Anyone who loves music should read it."

    ——— Bobby McFerrin

  • "The human mind is an amazing thing and its greatest attribute is imagination; from this has come great inventions, medical discoveries and art. All those great works from Bach onwards up to the present day have come from the fertile imagination of the human brain. Without music, the most sublime of arts, we would be little more than animals. In SIX SONGS, Mr. Levitin explains it all beautifully."

    ——— Sir George Martin

  • "In a brilliantly novel approach to human evolution, Levitin has sought to encapsulate diverse cultures in a set of six songs representative of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. That he is able to achieve so much with this small set of songs says something truly important about our common humanity."

    ——— Michael I. Posner

  • "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!"

    ——— Joni Mitchell

  • "I don't like the idea of this at all. How can you tell the story of the world in six songs? Who does this guy think he is telling me what these six songs should be?" [A few hours later:] "Hmmm. . .This is kind of interesting. I think I could come up with six songs to tell the story of the world. . ."

    ——— Willie Nelson

  • "Passionate and insightful. Daniel Levitin has written a delightfully personal epic poem proposing a central role for music in the evolution of human emotion and behavior. Now, musicians and neuroscientists have a common vocabulary with which to argue our human origins."

    ——— Julie R. Korenberg

  • "I read every word, and even hummed along with many of the songs. It is a friendly, joyous, comforting, knowledgeable, religious, and lovely book. An amazing piece of work."

    ——— Lewis R. Goldberg

  • "Rewarding . . . an intriguing explanation for the power of music in our lives as individuals and as a society."

    ——— Publishers Weekly

  • "An enjoyable and easy read...a provocative thesis agreeably presented."

    ——— Kirkus Reviews

  • "Levitin creates a rich account of how music has allowed humans to thrive even when faced with war, loss, and dwindling romance."

    ——— Seed Magazine

  • "Insightful and stimulating, with personal anecdotes that add a poignant dimension anyone can relate to."

    ——— Gary Lucas

  • "He's an amazing guy: a successful music producer that went on to earn a PhD in neuroscience. As a professor at McGill University, he is now doing pioneering research on how music relates to the brain and vice versa. This book documents his studies and offers some unique theories. A fascinating read."

    ——— Alex Skolnick

  • "Captivating. . . Levitin goes beyond mere taxonomy in The World In Six Songs, by giving us a comprehensive genealogy and historical perspective on each song type, as well as audaciously tying together diverse scientific, philosophical and theological strands. Levitin is to be commended for approaching this subject with passion and verve and giving us a buffet of food for thought."

    ——— Toro Magazine

  • "It's a provocative theory and an ambitious undertaking, but Levitin is up to the task. Through interviews with musicians and evolutionary biologists and his own scientific research, Levitin forms a compelling argument. As important as this work is, Levitin keeps things light. The result is a tremendously fun yet thought-provoking book."

    ——— P. Egan

  • "I'll be goddamned if Levitin didn't just figure out what makes me tick and what would make the debacle called Humanity happier in the process. Read The World in Six Songs (it's going to bigger than his This Is Your Brain on Music)."

    ——— Library Journal

  • "Fresh, compelling. . . This one's worth not just a read but a couple of wonderful re-reads."

    ——— Reader's Digest

  • "The soundtrack of civilization. In his erudite, accessible book, Daniel Levitin charts the evolutionary link between music and the brain."

    ——— People Magazine

  • "For fans of Brain on Music this is a must-read. For other readers, this is a literary, poetic, scientific and musical treat waiting to be discovered."

    ——— The Seattle Times

  • "A lively, ambitious new book. It works much like a great piece of pop music, whose combined elements can induce feelings of enlightenment and euphoria. Levitin is able to show off his natural passion and estimable aptitude for writing about music."

    ——— The New York Times

  • "A truly fascinating book with enormous scope, The World in Six Songs provides music lovers, and others, with an education in music as it influenced human and cultural evolution. Levitin presents his information in a scientific yet approachable manner and keeps what could be a very heavy topic fun and anecdotal. [STAFF PICK OF THE WEEK]"

    ——— Powell's Bookstore

  • "Exquisitely well-written and easy to read, serving up a great deal of scientific information in a gentle way for those of us who are—or just think we are—a bit science-phobic. More than that, the book is fun. Who would have thought that a scientific hypothesis could be supported by the "Slinky" song or by Dylan's "Death is Not the End?"

    ——— Huffington Post

  • "Equal measures of neuroscience and Nick Hornby-esque enthusiasm... A rare feat, both brain workout and beach read, a book that explains the mysteries of oxytocin (the trust-inducing hormone released during communal singing as well as in women during childbirth) and why Sting chants "eh-oh" at the end of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic."

    ——— The Very Short List

  • "Enthusiastically recommended...expansive, highly-readable, inspirational...brilliant, popularistic music commentary."

    ——— Chamber Music Today

  • "Daniel J. Levitin returns with the same smart, readable mix of science, personal anecdote and musical example that made last year's This Is Your Brain On Music so engaging. For anyone interested in music, evolution or the nature of society, this is a must-read."

    ——— Now Toronto

  • "His passionate journey into the hearts and minds of the musically obsessed is a fantastic ride. Along the way, you'll hang out with Sting, Joni Mitchell and Oliver Sacks, as well as people you likely won't have heard of but will be equally interested to meet, like music theorist Ian Cross."

    ——— New Scientist

  • "Fascinating. Provides a biological explanation for why we might tap our feet or bob our heads in time with a favorite song, how singing might soothe a baby, and how music emboldens soldiers or athletes preparing for conflict. An easy read."

    ——— Associated Press

  • "Thoughtful and wide-ranging...entertaining, captivating."

    ——— Evolutionary Psychology

  • "Daniel Levitin is one of the most interesting writers and thinkers about music in the world today."

    ——— Edwin Outwater


  • Following up on his bestselling This is Your Brain on Music, musician and cognitive scientist Levitin argues that we evolved to produce and consume music for six reasons: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Drawing on personal anecdotes, conversations with greats such as Sting and Joni Mitchell, and his own knowledge of evolutionary history, Levitin creates a rich account of how music has allowed humans to thrive even when faced with war, loss, and dwindling romance.

    ——— Seed Magazine

  • Music played a key role in making societies and civilizations possible. So argues research scientist Levitin (Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise/McGill University; This Is Your Brain on Music, 2006, etc.), who believes that music and the human brain co-evolved. What distinguishes us from all other species, he declares, is not language or use of tools, but the impulse toward artistic expression. The auditory art of music became part of our brain's wiring tens of thousands of years ago, and human nature has been shaped by six broad categories of songs, by which Levitin means music of all kinds. Devoting a chapter to each category-friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love-the author speculates about its origins and how it influenced the human spirit over thousands of generations. Levitin sees songs as efficient systems for preserving tribal histories, transmitting essential how-to information from generation to generation and communicating spiritual feelings and deep emotions. In his discussion of the music of friendship, he explores the role of synchronous, coordinated song and movement in creating strong bonds between early humans, arguing that these allowed the formation of large groups and, eventually, society as we know it. Besides citing research by sociologists, linguists, psychologists and biologists, the author illustrates his line of reasoning with a multitude of examples from his own extensive musical experience. Excerpts from familiar songs, conversations with musicians he knows and anecdotes from his years in the music industry make this an enjoyable and easy read. Whether evolutionary scientists will be persuaded remains to be seen, butthey will surely be entertained. A provocative thesis agreeably presented

    ——— Kirkus Reviews

  • Charles Darwin meets the Beatles in this attempt to blend neuroscience and evolutionary biology to explain why music is such a powerful force. In this rewarding though often repetitious study by bestselling author Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music), a rock musician turned neuroscientist, argues that music is a core element of human identity, paving the way for language, cooperative work projects and the recording of our lives and history. Through his studies, Levitin has identified six kinds of songs that help us achieve these goals: songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. He cites lyrics ranging from the songs of Johnny Cash to work songs, which, he says, promote feelings of togetherness. According to Levitin, evolution may have selected individuals who were able to use nonviolent means like dance and music to settle disputes. Songs also serve as "memory-aids," as records of our lives and legends. Some may find Levitina's evolutionary explanations reductionist, but he lightens the science with personal anecdotes and chats with Sting and others, offering an intriguing explanation for the power of music in our lives as individuals and as a society.

    ——— Publishers Weekly

  • Daniel J. Levitin returns with the same smart, readable mix of science, personal anecdote and musical example that made last year’s This Is Your Brain On Music so engaging.

    This time he’s out to demonstrate music’s central place in the evolution of societies. It’s a broader target than explaining how our brains process music, and builds on the brain chemistry and neuroscience of the previous book.

    There’s much less of that here, though, and more anthropology. You don’t have to read the previous book to understand this one, but it doesn’t hurt.

    The six songs are really six types of song, expressions of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. Working from a premise that the brain and music co-evolved, Levitin explains how each song type enables aspects of human bonding, cooperation and coordination.

    Chemically, it often comes down to a release of oxytocin, a neurochemical known to be involved in establishing bonds of trust between people.

    But Levitin is no mere chemical reductionist. A guitarist and record producer before turning to academia, he views art and science as two ends of a continuum that meet at a common point. He shows how songs function in the real world.

    He also invites artists into his discussion. Joni Mitchell and David Byrne in particular have interesting things to say in the chapter on religion, the book’s most radical section.

    Levitin bypasses the usual theist-atheist debate to present religion as an outgrowth of ritual, a part of our evolutionary heritage that may be related to a certain area of the brain.

    For anyone interested in music, evolution or the nature of society, this is a must-read.

    ——— Now Toronto

  • Jim Lieberman's starred Xpress review of Daniel Levitin's forthcoming The World in Six Songs (Dutton) made me think about a certain deceased rock critic and author. Pictured left and below with The Clash, Lester Bangs, an early reviewer for Rolling Stone who made his name writing for Creem magazine, loved everything from Van Morrison and Iggy Pop to John Coltrane. His writing possessed an incredible emotional range-by which I mean the man knew how to articulate music's psychological significance, its emotional effect (if it had one at all). Nobody I've read comes close to talking about music the way it should be talked about, that is, as a force capable of shaping our perception of people and the world.

    Here he is on The Clash: "Somewhere in their assimilation of reggae is the closest thing yet to the lost chord, the missing link between black music and white noise, rock capable of making a bow to black music without smearing on the blackface." On his hero, Lou Reed: "[He] is a completely deranged pervert and pathetic death dwarf." And, finally, on Van Morrison's "Madame George" from Astral Weeks: "Morrison saw the absolute possibility of loving human beings at their farthest extreme of wretchedness, and that the implications of that are terrible indeed."

    Why am I telling you all of this? Because Lester Bangs would've been Daniel Levitin's dream reader (not that Jim Lieberman's a slouch). If he hadn't accidentally overdosed in his craphole apartment on Sixth Avenue here in New York City, I guarantee you Levitin's people would've gotten a quote from Bangs along the lines of "I'll be goddamed if Levitin didn't just figure out what makes me tick and what would make the debacle called Humanity happier in the process."

    In other words, 1) read The World in Six Songs (it's going to bigger than his This Is Your Brain on Music), 2) listen to copious amounts of music, and 3) while reading The World in Six Songs, pick up Bangs's Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung to get a sense of a person who fully integrated music into his life.

    ——— Library Journal

  • Verdict: With protean musical reach and intellectual grasp, Levitin strides past academic boundaries, a Pied Piper celebrating diversity within community, in this exploration of music, emotion, and the brain. For all adult libraries.

    Background: In this follow-up to his New York Times best-selling This Is Your Brain on Music, musician-turned-neuroscientist Levitin explores our cerebral mansion, its history and beauty, wiring and acoustics. The tour, though silent on the page, enhances one's appreciation of music while explaining its evolutionary roots and continuing importance. Levitin sets out and then improvises on six themes: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Unlike light, he points out, sound reaches us in the dark, around corners and opacities, and seems to originate inside our heads. "Early musicians...may have been better able to communicate emotionally, diffuse confrontation, and ease interpersonal tensions." Also they can "encode important survival information in songs." Now with a freer, more personal voice, Levitin provides an exemplary mix of scientist and artist, student and teacher, performer and listener.

    ——— Library Journal

  • Before becoming a research scientist, the author, based at McGill University, worked as a record producer and a professional musician. Here, he explains why he's "come to believe that there are basically six kinds of songs, six ways that we use music in our lives, six broad categories of music. No less."

    The Levitin Six: Friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love.

    I found this a fresh, compelling construct that allows the author to explain how music enriches and informs our lives, how it teaches us, how it helps us-and also for him to share vivid stories that illustrate his points.

    Perhaps the story of how he visits the John Lennon/Yoko Ono suite at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth hotel-the one where John and Yoko held their famous 1969 week-long "bed in" to protest the Vietnam War-is my favorite. (It falls under the friendship category, in case you were wondering, because, his argument goes, music can be a tool for social bonding.) Levitin recalls watching news coverage of the bed-in from his home in California all those years ago, and as he stands there in the present time, invited in to see the room by his friend Oliver Sacks, who happened to be staying there, it all comes flooding back:

    "The song ['Give Peace a Chance'] continues to play in my head, but not like an ear worm, stuck in an irritating twenty-second loop, but full, rich, vivid. I hear the percussiveness of [Lennon's] guitar (hastily miked, it sounds thin, more like sandpaper and sticks than the beautiful spectral instrument it is), the clapping of the twenty people in the room, the makeshift bass drum of people clomping their feet on the floor, sounding eerily like mortar fire. My mind becomes flooded with thoughts I haven't held in years-the death of my grandfather, of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the dead war veterans, the Kent State students, Lennon's own violent death. Standing in Room 1742, Lennon's room, I find a tear for all their lives, and all that they stood for."

    Also, check out the chapters on music as comfort, and music as love.

    Bottom line: This one's worth not just a read but a couple of wonderful re-reads.

    ——— Readers Digest

  • In his innovative 2006 best-seller, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin, a pathbreaking McGill University neuroscientist and former world-class music producer, led readers on a trip inside their musical brain.

    Music, he argued, was more than a fortunate evolutionary byproduct of language development. The book made a persuasive case that our minds and our bodies would have evolved very differently without it. And it did so in an entertaining style with excursions into autobiography, popular culture and every imaginable musical genre.

    Now in "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature" (Dutton, 336 pp., $25.95), Levitin extends that argument beyond individual brains to human civilization and culture. For fans of "Brain on Music," this is a must-read. For other readers, this is a literary, poetic, scientific and musical treat waiting to be discovered.

    In the opening chapter, readers discover the author to be a lively conversationalist who can regale them with stories from his wide-ranging musical experiences while posing scientific questions that send them exploring paths they didn't even know existed.

    That chapter ends by restating the subtitle's audacious claim: "Through a process of co-evolution of brains and music, through the structures throughout our cortex and neocortex, from our brainstem 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 their own evolutionary basis... "

    Music has "been with humans since we first became humans. It has shaped the world through six kinds of songs: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love." The book then devotes a chapter to each song type, blending neuroscience, evolutionary biology, social anthropology, musicology and conversations with contemporary musical greats such as Sting and Joni Mitchell, who seem as enthralled with the author's six-songs thesis as he is.

    It is impossible to predict which chapter will connect best with which readers, but from the literary standpoint, it would be hard to beat "Comfort," which begins with a moment of high drama. "Eddie — the dishwasher at the pancake restaurant where I worked — lunged at my boss Victor with a kitchen knife. Victor fled, through the restaurant, just two steps ahead of him, knocking over a stack of high chairs and a few skinny teenage waitresses as he tried to get away. ... Victor made it to the parking lot and drove off. I went back to cooking pancakes and Eddie limped out the side door, and we never saw him again. All this over a song. And not just any song but Tony Orlando and Dawn's 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.' "

    After learning the back-story of this incident, which is interwoven with the story of how the young Levitin came to be working in that eatery, readers will never view comfort music — including the blues — in the same way.

    That chapter illustrates Levitin's mastery of literary structure, a skill that must have served him well in his previous career as a producer. The same skill is apparent in the ordering of his chapters, which build to an intense climax and end with a closing paragraph that is a love song in prose to love itself. Romantic love may be a powerful illusion, but (as some love songs teach us) mature love binds spouses, families, cultures and civilization itself. It is in our genes, in the structure and function of our brains, and it is inseparable from musical inheritance with which it co-evolved.

    Fred Bortz is the author of Beyond Jupiter, a young reader's biography of planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel, whose life has been shaped by a love of both science and music.

    ——— The Seattle times

  • What do the following scenes have in common? A pubescent boy becomes the star of his sleep-­away camp by introducing his bunkmates to Poison’s heavy-metal hit “Talk Dirty to Me”; a young man learns to fear Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” because it is the one song his mother always plays when his father doesn’t come home at night; a prospective groom and bride give their D.J. instructions not to play any sexually explicit hip-hop jams that might perplex guests of a certain age.

    You could make the case that these are all crucial steps in the development of a decidedly Caucasian musical sensibility, and you’d be right. But you’d be even more right if you said that each moment was a link in a longer anthropological chain that unites us all (no matter how vanilla our tastes may be) — one that, if traced to its origins, could explain why humans evolved the way we did, and why we needed music to turn out this way.

    That is, at least, the thesis of Daniel J. Levitin’s lively, ambitious and occasionally even persuasive new book, “The World in Six Songs.” Music, Levitin argues, is not just something to help pass the time on road trips and a swell facilitator for meeting girls: it is, he writes,“the soundtrack of civilization” — a force that shaped us as a species and prepared us for the higher-order task of sharing complex communications with one another.

    If that sounds like a slightly esoteric argument (and all but unprovable without the use of a time machine), it’s also one that Levitin is supremely qualified to make. A musician and former record producer who still pals around with the likes of Sting and David Byrne, Levitin now runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University; he covered adjacent turf in his 2007 best seller, “This Is Your Brain on Music.” And to the extent that “The World in Six Songs” succeeds, it works much like a great piece of pop music, whose combined elements can induce feelings of enlightenment and euphoria, even when some of the words don’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

    Levitin divides his book into impressionistic chapters that address the six categories he believes all songs (or at least those possessing lyrics) fit into: songs of friendship, songs of joy, songs of comfort, songs of knowledge, religious songs and love songs. There’s a nice parlor-game feel to the book as Levitin sets up these distinctions and the reader tries to figure out which groupings his or her favorite songs belong to. Is the Mothers of Invention’s exuberant “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance” a song of joy or a song of comfort? Is Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” a love song, or does its cautionary motorcycle-­crash conclusion make it a song of knowledge?

    The loose boundaries between Levitin’s categories, however, can sometimes lead to a certain slackness in his argument. By his own account, Levitin places the Johnny Cash song “I Walk the Line” in three different categories, citing it as an example of a friendship song, a knowledge song and a love song. And his criteria for identifying a friendship song — essentially, any music that helps facilitate, prompt or motivate “synchronous, coordinated” movement — are so broad that ’60s protest music and chain-gang laments turn out to be friendship songs, too.

    Throughout the book, Levitin builds many hypotheses upon logical if essentially unverifiable extrapolations of evolutionary theory, using it to account for almost any widespread trait in humans or other animals that is beneficial to mating or survival, so that his faith in the explanatory power of Darwinism becomes almost religious. From Levitin’s viewpoint, random gene mutation and natural selection can account for everything from a mouse’s heightened sensitivity to low-pitched frequencies (to better avoid being pounded underneath the feet of elephants) to mankind’s use of drum music in battle (to intimidate one’s enemies).

    Any and all of this may be true, but Levitin’s evolutionary thinking leads him to make some strange claims. Can we really trace our appreciation for joyful music to the evolutionary advantage that optimism provided primitive man in his efforts to pick up primitive women? (And why should a pessimist’s negative thoughts “bring about his own destruction” through fighting rather than diplomacy? Isn’t an optimist just as likely to throw himself into doomed battle?) And while the humanists among us may wish it so, how can we confirm that natural selection tends to preserve “altruism, fidelity, bonding and those qualities that are all part and parcel of mature love”? Haven’t we all met our share of Homo sapiens who have survived just fine without these qualities?

    Levitin is on safer ground, and much better able to show off his natural passion and estimable aptitude for writing about music, when he leaves the science behind and shares personal anecdotes that illustrate the pervasive role songs play in our lives. You’d have to be a calcified cynic not to be moved by the tale of the author’s grandmother, who arose every morning to sing “God Bless America,” guided by numbers taped to a cheap electronic keyboard. And by far the best part of the book is an extended digression in which Levitin recalls the days when he worked as a cook at a pancake restaurant in Oregon and once watched as the restaurant’s kindhearted, dimwitted dishwasher attempted to murder his manager in a confrontation incited by the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” It is a story that will leave you awestruck at the friendship between the author and his doltish kitchen co-worker; joyful that the incident was resolved without mortal violence; and cursing God, or whatever you believe in, that you, too, did not take a sabbatical to work as a short-order cook and learn to play guitar before you shipped off to college.

    Who knew that the world could really be explained in just one song, from the repertoire of Tony Orlando and Dawn?

    Dave Itzkoff writes the Book Review’s Across the Universe column.

    ——— New York Times