Jul 9, 2010, 15:48

In the previous installment of this blog series, I provided examples of what researcher Dan Levitin suggests are three types of songs that are not just important to us personally, but important from the standpoint of human evolution. In his book, The World in Six Songs (2009 Penguin Press), Levitin makes that case that human beings have evolved successfully in part because certain social, psychological and even logistical needs have been met by music. In today’s blog I will provide examples and descriptions of the remaining three types of songs.

4. Knowledge Songs

By all historical accounts, the Torah (first five books of the Bible) was preserved for a thousand years not by the written word…but by song. Alliteration, metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, accent structure, cliches and melody are musical devices that help us retain information better. Simply put, our brains don’t have to work as hard when we can attach key details to a larger, simpler block of information that is easy to recall. This allows our brains work more efficiently. Some examples:

This song featured in the cartoon Animaniacs is a schoolteacher’s dream come true.

Or who can forget the classic Schoolhouse Rock Saturday morning cartoon – “How A Bill Becomes Law”?

5. Religion (or Ritual) Songs

To this reader, the lines got a bit blurry trying to find a distinction between what the author calls “religion” songs and what he previously describes “comfort” songs. Most of Levitin’s examples of religion songs spoke more towards our need for rituals than towards our desire to express a particular belief or spirituality.

Ritualistic songs serve two functions. They put us in a broader frame of mind in terms of time. A wedding is an event that will have years of impact. It makes sense that some songs (like the “Wedding March”) take us out of ourselves and remind us that we are part of a much larger fabric. Ritual songs also give us a sense of control during moments where we feel we have very little control. It is comforting to sing a hymn in church when life is uncertain. Some examples:

Edward Elgar – “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1”

Chris Tomlin – “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” Soundtrack to the film Amazing Grace.

6. Love Songs

How exactly do people fall in love?

Levitin explains the physiology as follows:

“Researchers have identified neurochemical changes that occur during the first few months of a relationship; huge releases of oxytocin (the ‘trust’ hormone) and feel-good hormones like dopamine and norepinephrine, and at such high levels that they could be regarded as inducing clinically verifiable altered states of consciousness.”

My very unscientific belief is that songs burn deeper into our conscious when we are teenagers than they do when we are thirty-something homeowners with kids. Although RIAA statistics show that the largest music buying demographic is age 45 and over, I’d like to think the majority of those purchases stem from musical opinions formed by that listener during adolescence.

Adolescents are simply more open to new music than audiences over the age of 25; and adolescents are also experiencing love for the first time in their lives. Perhaps this is why more than 30% of the Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Songs of All Time are love songs.

Because love songs are so ubiquitous, songwriting experts usually break them down into further categories (“I want you”,“I have you”,“It’s not working out”, “I miss you.”). I’ve provided some classic examples here from the Rolling Stones list.

Example of an “I Want You” song:

The Beatles- “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”

Example of an “I Have You” song:

Beyonce/Jay-Z “Crazy in Love”

Example of an “It’s Not Working Out” song:

The Righteous Brothers – “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”

Example of an “I Miss You” song:

Sinead O’Connor – “Nothing Compares to You”


I earn income as a performing musician and have had the extreme privilege of watching music affect people very deeply and at very key moments in their life. I’ve watched people collapse and sob for Jesus. I’ve watched memory care patients sing along to songs from their childhood. I’ve watched the limitless potential that is a dance floor full of young people just happy to be together. I’ve played national anthems as troops departed for war.

Daniel Levitin’s The World In Six Songs has forever changed the way I think about what’s happening in those moments. And on a larger scale, it has made me realize that from generation to generation the melodies and rhythms may sound different, but the songs remain the same.


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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