Saturday, November 15, 2008

The World in Six Songs

Sharon Dutton

On September 15, 2008, Dr. Daniel Levitin spoke to a full house at Walter Hall in the Edward Johnson Building, which houses the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto. With him were eight singers, who performed selections that represented six ways that humans use music. Dr. Levitin’s book, “The world in Six Songs, How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature”, had just been published (by Dutton Adult, New York); Dr. Levitin was introducing the theories that he presents in his book – a justification for the evolutionary function of music.

He has classified Music as having six evolutionary functions: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Levitin claims that the human capacity or need to create song provides musicologists with a unique opportunity to study Music’s evolutionary function, based upon his argument that songs, particularly folk songs, are a more honest portrayal of human feelings than other art forms.

Dr. Levitin supports his claim that singing fosters friendship among people, with the argument that singing songs together causes the brain to release oxytocin, thereby creating feelings of trust and bonding. Humans are social beings, and friendship is crucial for the development of community (and safety). He suggests that The First Song was born impulsively, as an expression of joy, and notes that listening to music increases the level of dopamine in the human brain, a substance which causes us to feel good. When caregivers sing to babies, proactin is released in the baby’s brain, providing a sense of comfort. Caregivers would have taken advantage of this to induce sleep in children. Music, Dr. Levetin suggests, preceded Language, and therefore was used to share and communicate knowledge among humans. He claims that Music activates more primitive areas in the brain, and refers us to “The Singing Neanderthal”, by Stephen Mithen, published by Harvard University Press, 2007. Dr. Levitin claims that Music was important in the growth of Monotheism, which emphasized order. Music was used by the Church to create a sense of divine truth. Finally, because Music is meant to impart feelings, Music was used in expressions of romantic love, which, he claims, is unique to humans.


I enjoyed the presentation, particularly the vocal performances. While it is clear that several types of songs serve functional capacities, (worship music, lullabies and work songs for example), I do not agree with his vision of Music as serving an evolutionary purpose. It implies that Music needs an evolutionary reason to exist, that Music has affected the way in which humans have evolved, that in order to exist, Music must serve a practical function, one that contributes to our physical, cognitive, emotional, or social development. Such an assumption grossly undervalues Music’s existence as a natural, phenomenological expression of human spirituality. By spirituality, I mean that ability of humans to care, to trust, to love, and to be deeply moved by something.

I can understand how sharing songs fosters a sense of community; singing and dancing together generates spiritual bonding, and humans are social animals. Dr. Levitin alludes to the function or usefulness of work songs, creating synchrony and lending pleasure to an otherwise possibly unpleasant task; music in this sense is serving a function. Listening to or engaging in music making, causes our brains to release dopamine. Dopamine is thought to create a positive mood, and positive moods are more conducive to good health. Listening to music could thereby have beneficial mental and physical consequences. His argument in support of Music functioning as comfort is plausible; this may even have been the first discovery of music, but cooing to babies to help them sleep is not the same as singing. Music does help to convey knowledge as well; and he demonstrates this with “the alphabet song”. Also, many cultures tell their histories through song. This is different than using music as language. The story is told using words, music adds to the story by providing an emotional or spiritual component. Levitin claims that music preceded language (2006, p 256), but a clear distinction needs to be made between vocalizing and singing. House cats, for example, use many different inflections when they communicate, (rather, demand), but this is not singing. Animals use vocalizations, as much as we include inflections in our speech in order to impart meaning, but this is not Music. What Music does contribute, however, is the creation of mood, a form of emotional knowledge or communication. If music preceded language, as Dr. Levitin suggests, and if this is an evolutionary function of music, then why would speech have taken over as the preferred mode of communication?

Music is functional to religious experiences in many cultures, particularly our North American Aboriginal cultures. Dr. Levitin may be getting closer to Music’s existence in the spiritual realm by linking it to expressions of love, however, this is not the same as sexual selection. Levitin (2006) agrees with Darwin’s argument that music is conducive to sexual selection, but for different reasons. Darwin suggests that “musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex” (p 251), whereas Levitin agrees with Geoffrey Miller, that “music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display, mostly broadcast by young males to attract females” (p 253). Music exists in the spiritual realm as an expression of love, because Love exists in the spiritual realm. Music has always existed, as long as humans have had the capacity for emotive expression, perhaps before we had the capacity for speech.

I concede that while some practical forms of music assisted in our development as a social species, music itself does not need an evolutionary reason to exist, any more than Life, or Energy, or Love needs a reason to exist. To suggest as much, is to suggest that everything that we experience as spiritual exists because of selective evolution, which is to suggest that nothing exists except to advance us as a species, which is to suggest that the human species is or encapsulates all that there is in the universe, known or unknown, which is highly unlikely. Evolution, I thought, only pertained to species development. We generally think of ourselves as highly developed evolutionary beings, and we tend to think of Music as something that is created by us, and from within us. However, if we think of Music as a first cousin to that state of mind known as enlightened awareness, of bliss, if we acknowledge the mysterious element of Music that at once moves and serves every human being in a personal and private way, if we Westerners can acknowledge the mystery of spiritual communication, then Music becomes one with the Life Energy of which we are all a part. We all have the propensity for musical expression, whether it is manifested as a “happy dance”, the communal sharing of folk songs, or as listening to classical music. It is much more easily accessible than Nirvana, to be sure, but comes from the same source. Levitin states “the archaeological record shows an uninterrupted record of music making everywhere we find humans, and in every era” (256). My concern is how far we Westerners will suppress music, as a form of communion with our spiritual selves, and as a unique form of expressive communication between eachother. Aldous Huxley said: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”.

So far, Music has survived, our evolutionary development, but, while adaptations take as much as fifty thousand years to be manifested (2006, p 256), Levitin warns that “it has only been in the last hundred years or so that the ties between musical sound and human movement have been minimized. The embodied nature of music, the indivisibility of movement and sound, the anthropologist John Blacking writes, characterizes music across cultures and across times” (p 257). As Westerners do away with spirituality, and as music making moves from away from embodied expression to digital production, as our need to develop social communities is replaced by our fears, when the evolutionary “lag” finally catches up to 21st century human society, perhaps we will have discarded our ability to make music.


Levitin, Daniel J. (2006) This is Your Brain on Music, The Science of a Human Obsession, Plume, Penguin Group, New York

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