The Soundtrack of Civilization

  Musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin '80
  Photo by Arsenio Coroa

Following up on his best-selling book This Is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist and musician Daniel Levitin '80, has penned The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. Levitin's ambitious new thesis postulates that six categories of songs?friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love songs?shaped the history of human civilization. "As Berklee people, we take music for granted in one sense, because none of us need to be told how important it is," Levitin said in a recent phone interview. "We've all dedicated our lives to it in one way or another."


Musicians have long believed that, throughout human history, music has been important in the day-to-day lives of people around the world. However, Levitin boldly declares that music and songs in particular have been more important historically than many suspect. He mentions German scientist Nicholas Conard's discovery of a hollowed mammoth tusk with holes drilled in it, a primitive flute dating back to the Ice Age (some 37,000 years ago). Hence, a musical instrument is currently regarded as one of the most advanced tools of its time. Throughout his book, Levitin illustrates that music is more than mere entertainment. He proposes that it has been the means for creating bonds in societies, for conveying and preserving knowledge, and for the emotional development of human beings. Historically, music has been a soothing balm in times of sorrow as well as a rallying cry in times of war. For Levitin, music is nothing short of "the soundtrack of civilization."


  • Anyone who wants to understand human nature, the interaction between brain and cul-ture, between evolution and society, has to take a close look at the role music has held in the lives of humans, at the way that music and people co-evolved.1


At first glance, it seems a lofty notion that only six types of songs could be so significant, but Levitin ably supports his theories with research he conducted at McGill University's Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise, his deep familiarity with many genres of music, and his conversations with top artists and scientists of our time.

The following excerpt provides a cursory overview of Levitin's justification for his choice of six songs and their importance in terms of evolution, natural selection, human adaptation, and so forth.


  • Knowledge songs developed as an efficient way to encode, preserve, and transmit information. As early or protohumans left the shelter of the savan-nah, exposing themselves to predators, the drive toward friendship allowed for us to navigate com-plex social and interpersonal exchanges. Comfort songs helped reassure infants and others that we were nearby, and they helped to pick us out of peri-ods of sadness by reminding us that others too had felt sad and recovered.

    Joy songs began as expressions of our own emo-tional states, signaling to those around us either a positive outlook or the possession of food and shel-ter resources. Neurochemical boosts associated with joyful singing helped reinforce joy as a signal for mate selection. Religion and its songs served to bind animal rituals into systems of belief, and ulti-mately helped to systematize and socialize feelings of hope and faith.

    If love is viewed narrowly as romantic love, then it is probably not a cornerstone in the creation of human nature. But love in its larger sense?the sweeping, selfless commitment to another person, group or idea?is the most important cornerstone of a civilized society.2


  We believe a message that comes to us through song more than one that comes through speech."
Daniel Levitin, author of The World in Six Songs

One of the book's most fascinating features is the linkage between brain chemicals produced by certain types of songs and the body's physical reaction. In the chapter on joy songs, for example, Levitin details how levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with regulation of our moods, increases when we listen to "pleasant music."3 He notes that different musical genres cause different neurochemical activity. For instance, techno music increases a range of brain chemicals associated with improving immune function.

In the section on comfort songs, Levitin notes that sad people turn to dolorous rather than happy music for uplift. Our brains are tricked into producing the tranquilizing hormone prolactin as a response to the "safe or imaginary sorrow induced by the music, and the prolactin then turns around our mood."4 Levitin says that sorrow has an evolutionary purpose in helping us conserve energy and reorient our priorities after a traumatic event.


Writing about the significance of knowledge songs, Levitin states that many cultures have telegraphed warnings of danger or the strength of their armies through drumming, group vocalizing, bagpipe tunes, and more. As well, all cultures have rhyming counting songs that teach children number systems and chanting songs that teach them to coordinate movements together (e.g., "Patty Cake" and jumping-rope songs). Children's songs train memory and were precursors to ballads and epics that transmit and preserve historical data that are much more easily memorized in song form rather than as prose.

Levitin devotes the book's final chapter to the emotional impact and evolutionary effects of love songs. "It was love songs and the feelings of love that created the social structure in which we bring up children. Men and women form pair-bonds to the lilts of love songs and mutually ensure the care and nurturing of children."5


Citing the ethologist's description of music as an "honest signal," Levitin concludes that it is more difficult to fake sincerity in music than in spoken language because music deals more with emotions than facts. Consequently, "We believe a message that comes to us through song more than one that comes through speech."6 Humans are deeply affected by love songs, which can stir buried memories of the poignancy of a particular time or experience in our lives. Essentially, we respond to the amount of honesty and care the artist has put into his music and its message, Levitin avers.


During the phone interview, when Levitin was asked about the success of some contemporary music?which more discerning listeners may believe lacks depth?Levitin was forgiving. "In the pop-music industry, there are performers whose music is considered corporate and contrived. But for some of these performers, it is honest and represents who they are. They might not be deep thinkers or deeply musical people. What you hear is who they are, so it's an honest signal from them."

Levitin's book offers a different vantage point for musicians to view themselves and their drive to create and perform music. He also offers reasons for why music connects with virtually all people on many levels. As both a passionate musician and scientist, he offers sound explanations for the enduring and undeniable power that music has carried through the ages. "I wanted to convey the enthusiasm and excitement I have for what is going on in my corner of the research world," he says. "I want people to gain a better appreciation for what music and the brain are and how they come together. It's important to be able to look around the world and appreciate the tremendous effect music has had."



1. Levitin, Daniel J. The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. New York: Dutton, 2008, 2 - 3.
2. Ibid., 241
3. Ibid., 99
4. Ibid., 133
5. Ibid., 239
6. Ibid., 270