Bookmarks Issue: 
Award Year: 

A-The World in Six SongsDaniel J. Levitin, a prominent McGill University neuroscientist who runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, is a former world-class music producer and musician and author of This Is Your Brain on Music (2006).

The Topic: Music has "been with humans since we first became humans," writes Levitin. Here, he combines neuroscience, social anthropology, musicology, and evolutionary biology to argue how music has influenced evolution through six kinds of songs: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love. Exploring the history of song—from jazz to classical to rock—Levitin devotes a chapter to each. ("Joy" gets "Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut"; "Knowledge" analyzes the encoding of nursery rhymes; and "I Walk the Line" falls into three categories.) Each chapter, sprinkled with anecdotes linking music to behavioral traits, reveals how tightly music and neurological development are intertwined—so much so, in fact, that music has become a soundtrack of our evolution.
Dutton. 368 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0525950737

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[It’s] the anecdotes that make this book so eminently enjoyable: Levitin goes small in order to get at the infinitely complex. And like Petrusich, he lets his love for song bleed into his writing." Matthew Shaer

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In the opening chapter, readers discover the author to be a lively conversationalist who can regale them with stories from his wide-ranging musical experiences while posing scientific questions that send them exploring paths they didn’t even know existed. … It is impossible to predict which chapter will connect best with which readers, but from the literary standpoint, it would be hard to beat ‘Comfort,’ which begins with a moment of high drama." Fred Bortz

Globe and Mail (Toronto) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"On a per-page basis, there is more interesting stuff in The World in Six Songs than in any other book about music you’re likely to encounter. … Levitin has, in this book, aligned himself with the ‘neo-Darwinists,’ those writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who explain virtually everything in terms of the theory of natural selection." Paul Quarrington

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[T]o the extent that The World in Six Songs succeeds, it works much like a great piece of pop music, whose combined elements can induce feelings of enlightenment and euphoria, even when some of the words don’t hold up to closer scrutiny. … Levitin is on safer ground, and much better able to show off his natural passion and estimable aptitude for writing about music, when he leaves the science behind and shares personal anecdotes that illustrate the pervasive role songs play in our lives." Dave Itzkoff

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2 of 5 Stars
"Levitin is weaker on religion; faith is something he doesn’t seem to understand. … Most seriously, Levitin largely limits himself, and therefore his readers, to considerations of pop music, mostly from his late baby boomer youth." Sarah Bryan Miller

Critical Summary

Fans that have read This Is Your Brain on Music are in for another treat; newcomers to Levitin will still find much to enjoy in this consideration of music and human civilization. Levitin writes with both knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary biology and a deep appreciation for the musician’s craft—one that will resound loudly with musicophiles. The New York Times Book Review, however, questioned some of Levitin’s "unprovable" scientific claims, and others faulted him for taking a reductionist view of evolution, shamelessly namedropping, cherry-picking songs from a select era, and failing to edit a verbose tome. Despite such flaws, most readers will find something to connect with in the book—even if it’s just one song.

Also by the Author

This Is Your Brain on Music The Science of a Human Obsession (2006): Without music, Levitin argues in this examination of how our brains process music, we would have evolved very differently from how we did.