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

BOOK: The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
Table of Contents
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
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Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, August 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Daniel J. Levitin
All rights reserved
Permissions appear on page 330 and constitute an extension of the copyright page.
Levitin, Daniel J.
The world in six songs: how the musical brain created human nature / Daniel J. Levitin. p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-04136-9
1. Music—Psychological aspects. 2. Music—Social aspects. 3. Music—Origin. I. Title.
ML3838.L48 2008
781’.11—dc22 2008012298
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Taking It from the Top or “The Hills Are Alive . . .”
n my desk right now I have a stack of music CDs that couldn’t be more different: an eighteenth-century opera by Marin Marais whose lyrics describe the gory details of a surgical operation; a North African griot singing a song, offered to businessmen passing by in the hopes of securing a handout; a piece written 185 years ago that requires 120 musicians to perform it properly, each of them reading a very specific and inviolable part off of a page (Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9). Also in the pile: forty minutes of groans and shrieks made by humpback whales in the Pacific; a North Indian raga accompanied by electric guitar and drum machine; a Peruvian Andes vocal chorus of how to make a water jug. Would you believe an ode to the gustatory pleasures of homegrown tomatoes?
Plant ’em in the spring eat ’em in the summer
All winter without ’em’s a culinary bummer
I forget all about all the sweatin’ and diggin’
Every time I go out and pick me a big ’un
Homegrown tomatoes, homegrown tomatoes
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes?
Only two things that money can’t buy
That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes
(Guy Clark)
That all these are music may seem self-evident to some, or the stuff of argument to others. Many of our parents or grand-parents or children say that the music
listen to isn’t music at all, it’s just noise. Noise by definition is a set of sounds that are random, confused, or uninterpretable. Could it be that all sound is potentially musical if only we could understand its internal structure, its organization? This is what the composer Edgar Varèse was driving at when he famously defined music as “organized sound”—what sounds like noise to one person is music to another, and vice versa. In other words, one man’s Mozart is another’s Madonna, one person’s Prince is another’s Purcell, Parton, or Parker. Perhaps there is a key to understanding what is common to all these collections of sounds, and to what has driven humans since the beginning to engage with them so deeply as not just sound but music.
Music is characterized both by its ubiquity and its antiquity, as the musicologist David Huron notes. There is no known culture now or anytime in the past that lacks it, and some of the oldest human-made artifacts found at archaeological sites are musical instruments. Music is important in the daily lives of most people in the world, and has been throughout human history. Anyone who wants to understand human nature, the interaction between brain and culture, between evolution and society, has to take a close look at the role that music has held in the lives of humans, at the way that music and people co-evolved. Musicologists, archaeologists, and psychologists have danced around the topic, but until now, no one has brought all of these disciplines together to form a coherent account of the impact music has had on the course of our social history. This book is a lot like making a family tree, a tree of musical themes that have shaped our ancestors’ lives: their working days, their sleepless nights—the soundtrack of civilization.
Anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, and psychologists all study human origins, but relatively little attention has been paid to the origins of music. I find that odd. Americans spend more money on music than they do on prescription drugs or sex, and the average American hears more than five hours of music per day. We know now that music can affect our moods and our brain’s chemistry. On a day-to-day level, a better understanding of the common history between music and humanity can help us to better understand our musical choices, our likes and dislikes, to harness the power of music to control our moods. But far more than that, understanding our mutual history will help us to see how music has been a shaping force, how music has been there to guide the development of human nature.
The World in Six Songs
explains, at least in part, the evolution of music and brains over tens of thousands of years and across the six inhabited continents. Music, I argue, is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next. This book explains how I came to the (some might say) radical notion that there are basically six kinds of songs that do all of this. They are songs of friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love.
In trying to understand the evolution of humanity and the role that music has played in it, it seems wise to begin with open minds (and ears) and not exclude any form of music too soon. However, the evolution of mind and music is easiest to follow in music that involves lyrics, because the meaning of the musical expression is less debatable. When the notes are hung on words (or is it that the words are hung on notes?), the meaning is easier to talk about usefully. Because music wasn’t recorded until about a hundred years ago, nor even accurately notated until a few hundred years before that, the historic record of music is substantially lyrics. For these two reasons, music with lyrics will be the predominant focus of
The World in Six Songs.
Much of the world’s music is now available on compact disc, or on the medium that is rapidly replacing it, digitized sound files on computers (generically—and somewhat inaccurately—referred to as MP3s). We live in a time of unprecedented access to music. Virtually every song ever recorded in the history of the world is available on the Internet somewhere—for free. And although recorded music represents only a small proportion of all the music that has ever been sung, played, and heard, there is so much of it—estimates suggest 10 million songs or more—that recorded music is as good a place as any to start to talk about the music of the world. Thanks to intrepid musicologists and anthropologists, even rare, indigenous, and preindustrial music is now available to us. Cultures that have been cut off from industrialization and Western influence have had their music preserved, and by their own accounts, it may have been unchanged for many centuries, giving us a window into the music of our ancestors. The more I listen to music like this and to Western artists that are new to me, the more conscious I become of how large music is and how much there is to know.
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