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McGill Prof Levitin writes book, toots own horn

As un-scientific as it is, I started out reading The World in Six Songs with a bias. I had taken the author’s – Daniel Levitin – class on cognition and read his previous book, This is Your Brain on Music. Levitin, it appears, has many famous friends – musicians and psychologists alike – whose names he casually drops into both class lectures and book chapters with a little too much frequency.

My opinion of Levitin, therefore, was not based on his work, but what I thought of his ego. His first book made him into something of a celebrity, which only encouraged my distaste. but I decided to review The World in Six Songs to give him another chance. Though the subject matter of his newest publication fascinated me, I was distracted by the author’s bragging, and before I knew it, familiar snide thoughts infiltrated my mind.

I found it easy at first to deride his main idea, that the social function of every lyrical song created by human beings can fall into one of six categories: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. It was preposterous, I thought, to try to lump the immense wealth of songs that exist across the world into a measly six groups.

I decided before I had finished the first chapter that the success of his first book had prompted him to publish a second too quickly, and with too little substance, as happens with so many sequels. But as Levitin delved more into the meaning and significance of each song type, I began to appreciate his ideas. The basic concept laid out in the book is that musical abilities, both in terms of perception and production, evolved in humans hundreds of thousands of years ago. Levitin posits that skills leading to musical abilities enhanced social communication, faithfulness to one’s partner, impressive memory, deep feelings of hope and faith, and powerful friendships in primitive humans, and developed in humans over time.

Music didn’t create these social qualities, of course; the potential for them already existed in our primate ancestors, as they existed in many other animals. Music simply helped humans to explore and expand them, playing, in Levitin’s opinion, a crucial role in our social and psychological development and helping us to reach the complexity we have.

Levitin knows his stuff. The World in Six Songs offers provoking perspectives to contribute to both psychology and a general understanding of music. But his knowledge is overpowered by self-importance. Every time Levitin flaunted having lunch with Joni Mitchell or discussing the origins of music with Sting, I cringed. Seeking reprieve, I took a peek at Levitin’s web site, but the experience only confirmed my suspicion; this man loves himself. The site featured a slideshow of Levitin through the ages, one of him posing with a saxophone, links to songs he wrote, a list of the tracks on his iPod, and even which superhero he would be – Spiderman.

Still, I came to appreciate the way Levitin organized his ideas, interweaving personal anecdotes with scientific revelations, and relevant tidbits about observations that one sees and hears in everyday life. Furthermore, his musical references kept me scrolling through my iTunes library, listening for the particularly appealing chord progression or emotional lyric he cited. Slowly, Levitin won me over.

I recognized the immense amount of scientific work backing up his hypotheses, and before I had even finished, I reached the reluctant conclusion that Levitin is an expert in his field, and experienced with several areas of music – be it discovery, exploration, performance, or shoulder rubbing. And who am I kidding. If I had chatted with David Byrne, I’d probably mention it too. Just don’t let it get to your head, Daniel.