Jul 5, 2010, 06:42

In his 2008 book The World in Six Songs (2009 The Penguin Group), researcher Daniel J. Levitin creates a fascinating thread that connects findings in neuroscience, physiology, evolution theory, and anthropology. He suggests that your love of music speaks to something deeper in your DNA than the moment you discovered your parents’ record collection. A deep, visceral relationship with music is actually a strong genetic trait that, for thousands of years, has helped mankind evolve and succeed as a species.

Specifically, there are six types of functions that music has performed in the lives of human beings both as a society and as individuals. Arguably, the world would be quite different had we not harnessed music, like fire, to fulfill very particular and very acute needs.

1. Friendship Songs

Ancient Mesopotamia is our earliest record of irrigation on a metropolitan scale. To pull something like this off, people had to collaborate in groups much larger than the villages and tribes to which they been accustomed for untold generations. How did all these tribes obtain enough trust and community to work together?

Just ask any baby boomer who saw this historic 1967 TV appearance by the Who. Suddenly, a frustrated teenager in Sacramento had the the same theme song as a teenager in Omaha. And the Woodstock generation became that much more unified.

Military cadences are another example of how music creates a sense of one-ness between people that share a common goal or challenge. When I served in the US Army, I loved how songs like this instantly synchronized large groups of young men and women from completely different backgrounds into one collective.

2. Joy Songs

Certain kinds of music urge us to get physical. I’ve played enough wedding receptions to see the catharsis that occurs when people dance as if nobody’s watching. At these events, there is often an overweight uncle who is sweating profusely with his tux shirt is hanging out. But it’s cool because he’s having fun. It’s clearly his medicine.

Levitin suggests that when we experience stress, our bodies produce cortisol which gives us the boost we used to require to outrun a lion or fight an enemy. But if that energy is not used up, it actually produces a deficit in our immune system. As biologist Robert Sapolsky points out, “We are living in bodies and thinking with brains that were designed to solve problems that almost none of us has today.”

In songs such as “I Feel Good”, James Brown points to what is probably the ideal way to dispose of excess cortisol in the 21st century:

Levitin also posits that “joy songs” tickle the optimist in our primal human nature.
Specifically, the part of our forefathers that was optimistic enough to believe that approaching the neighboring cave woman would work out well. That theory becomes easy to accept after viewing iTunes’ most downloaded song of 2009, “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas:

3. Comfort Songs

Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell was once approached in a restaurant by two woman in their late forties. They said, “In our twenties, we had a hard time…we listened to your album Blue and it made us feel better. Before there was Prozac there was you!”

Sorrow has an evolutionary purpose. It helps us grieve a loss or traumatic event which helps us “reorient our priorities for the future”. At the end of the film Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon’s character finally has a breakthrough about his childhood and he sobs uncontrollably. In the next and final scene, he’s rides off healthily into the sunset to pursue his woman. Roll credits.

It may sound like psychobabble, but Levitin provides an interesting factoid. He explains that, when we are sad, our bodies produce a hormone called prolactin. Prolactin is also found in females after orgasm, childbirth and lactation- all events that precede a period wherein a mother needs to be resilient enough to raise a child. Interestingly, prolactin is only found in tears of sadness. It is not found in tears of joy or the tears that accompany a piece of dirt in your eye.

“Comfort songs” are songs that help us feel those cathartic feelings. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a powerful example. This heart-breaking song was originally made famous by Bonnie Raitt in 1991 and is performed here by George Michael. Check out the comments posted by viewers which strongly reinforce Levitin’s idea that people truly need songs like this in their life.

In the next installment of this blog series, I will explain and provide examples for the other three types of songs described in Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs. Stay tuned.


Mike Bielenberg is a professional musician and co-founder of http://www.musicrevolution.com, a production music marketplace where media producers and business owners can license high-quality, affordable music from a online community of musicians.

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