Six Songs and Human Nature

Nov 24 2015

In This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin explored the psychology of music, and in The World in Six Songs he turns to music, culture and human nature.  He discusses six different ways in which music and song communicate emotions and ideas, covering friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love, arguing that these songs are the building blocks of human nature. This is a great read on the role of music in all societies and how it has shaped and reflects human culture. I couldn’t help but notice that the six songs Levitiin discusses cover the range of human motivations and emotional goals.The first song is that of FRIENDSHIP which is all abut belonging to a group, and is discussed in terms of tribal music and the beating of drums in battle as well as the synchronicity of coordinated song and movement in binding people together in music and dance. Muscle coordination is helped and motivated by song (as in a crew rowing on a ship). Music and coordinated movement create social bonds as well as more immediate group cohesion around a specific activity. Daniel Levitin discusses Robin Dunbar’s work and views on the role of physical and then verbal grooming in building social bonds, tracing the development of music and then language as the facilitator of social cooperation among human tribes. The first motivation of music is belonging and connecting with others.

The second song is that of JOY, celebrating life’s little moments and the feeling of wanting to sing, jump, dance and shout out loud. Thus joy is about self-expression and living in the moment as much as it is about fun. Music is associated with the brain chemistry of well-being, stress reduction and the immune system making us more vital and energetic. Daniel Levitin links this to the role of expectation and anticipation in the psychology of music, most especially the role that music plays in helping us to explore the world and simulate different situations in our mind, understanding how to manage the unexpected. Music is all about tension and release, as in that feeling on heading the first two notes of Over the Rainbow, when you know that the third note has to come down in pitch after the octave leap. Listening to music is like the motivation to explore the world and discover new and surprising things about it and yourself.

The third song is COMFORT, the song that connects nursery rhymes to the muzak that you hear while you’re holding on the phone waiting desperately for someone to answer. Singing soothes babies and adults in ways that nothing else can quite match. The lullaby is the classic song of comfort, and most have been shown to share many similarities in their structure following a formulaic pattern that helps to calm you and those around you. Lullabies are as much about calming the mother as they are about calming the child. Thus the third motivation in music is the need to calm and soothe to feel protected and safe.

The fourth song is KNOWLEDGE as many songs and much music is about sharing information, advice, learnings and truths or about encoding personal memories and sharing with others (e.g.,” I remember the colour of the … “). Often information is conveyed and reinforced by the music that accompanies the words, making the emotions communicated even more clearly and directly. In fact knowledge is emotion, and emotion is at the heart of anything we remember, helping us to know why and how something is important. If you seek understanding, music and song are even more powerful than stories at helping you achieve your goal.

The fifth song is RELIGION, and Daniel Levitin points to the rituals that surround all religions and other forms of ceremony such as major rites of passage such as birth, marriage and death, natural cycles such as the seasons, rain, daybreak and nightfall. Rituals have the effect of tying us to an event and giving structure and order to the world through a common set of beliefs. Like music, forms of religion are found in all human societies. Religious practices always involve ritual behaviours and repetitive actions (making signs, crossing hands, kneeling, etc). Rituals often relate to concerns of purity, contamination, safety and, of course, mating (in animals as well as humans). Music has always been a powerful way of remembering sequences of actions and the music of religion and ritual helps us all achieve the goal of structure and order in our lives.

The sixth and final song is LOVE, perhaps the one motivation that we all most readily associate with music and song. In its broadest sense, love is about making connections with other people. Shakespeare famously wrote (in Twelfth Night), “if music be the food of love then play on” and of course it is. Much of the musical brain helps us gain perspective on others (an empathy engine) as well as being strong at representation and rearrangement, all three important skills for being human. If your goal is connection and intimacy. then the music of love is the way to achieve it.

Overall, The World in Six Songs is packed with fantastic insights into the role of music in society and culture and the different ways in which it illuminates and encourages what makes us human. It’s a great companion to This is Your Brain on Music and recommended to music lovers everywhere.


The World in Six Songs: How the musical brain created human nature by Daniel Levitin

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