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

by Daniel J. Levitin
(Dutton, $25.95)

Music has been so critical in shaping humans as a species, says author Daniel Levitin, that you can recognize its influence just by considering the six types of songs we most often hear. Love songs are an obvious staple, and we’ve also sustained ourselves with songs of joy, friendship (think “Smoking in the Boys’ Room”), comfort (including the blues), instruction, and religion. None of these song types is a mere byproduct of larger cultural developments, Levitin writes. Precursors of each probably predated spoken language, and they provide important clues to the emotional traits that have allowed human beings to survive and thrive.

Levitin, a former record producer turned neuroscientist, is fast becoming “the new academic champion of rock ’n’ roll,” said Arthur Kaptains in The Montreal Gazette. Last year, the author established himself with the best-seller This Is Your Brain on Music, in which he combined both backgrounds in an entertaining guide to the psychology of music perception. This intriguing but “patchy” follow-up has a similar conversational flavor. It skips casually from speculative evolutionary theories to usually engaging anecdotes about hanging out with such luminaries as Joni Mitchell and Oliver Sacks. But the book’s main argument is sloppily constructed, and the whole effort “too often reads like a valentine” to Levitin’s friends and colleagues.

“To the extent” that it succeeds, said Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times, the book “works much like a great piece of pop music.” The total experience “can induce feelings of enlightenment and euphoria, even when some of the words don’t hold up to closer scrutiny.” Levitin is at his best when he stops trying to convince us that a caveman who liked joyful music would have had more luck with the ladies, and instead shares personal tales “that illustrate the pervasive role songs play in our lives.” Levitin’s great story about a knife fight he once witnessed might even convince you that life can even be explained by the varied reactions people have to Tony Orlando’s version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” Patience is required, though, said Terry Teachout in Commentary. Six Songs is less a sustained inquiry into music or the human mind than “a bagful of factual goodies into which the reader reaches more or less blindly to see which one comes out next.”