This blog is part 1 of my series exploring Daniel Levitin’s “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature”. I would highly recommend following Daniel Levitin to continue learning from this musician and neuroscientist.
For those new to my blog, I use book chapters from each book I read as my blog prompts!
Chapter One: Taking It from the Top or “the hills are alive”
Having not read the subsequent chapters, my initial assumption is this chapter is Levitin’s introduction. He writes of discussions with musicians, poetry instructors, and his own musical experience; so, I’ll share my own thoughts using these three topics. The theme throughout this chapter is the interconnectedness of melody and lyrics.
- The two, lyrics and music, have always been mutually dependent, in much the same way as a mannequin and a set of clothes are dependent on each other; separate them, and what remains is a naked dummy and a pile of cloth.
It is an interesting concept: I can appreciate both the lyrics by themselves and the lyrics with their accompanying melody. Of course, I only have that appreciation when I understand the lyrics: in high school, I used to translate the lyrics of my favorite songs into Spanish; somehow, that added greater meaning to the song.
Sting and Levitin also discuss meaning. Musicians have the freedom to put emphasis on syllables that aren’t typically emphasized; they can also write songs that are open to interpretation. Songs can be appreciated and sung by individuals who don’t know the language in which the song is written. This explanation brings to mind Barenaked Ladies, ABBA, and LFO. I was also reminded of a friend I met in Spain who begged me to translate Bon Jovi’s “Always”: it was her favorite song, and she knew all the words; she didn’t, however, know any English!
Levitin learns from “Dr. Lee”
Levitin seeks out his colleague, a poetry professor named Dr. Lee (pseudonym) as a mentor after being told he needs to improve as a lyricist. He asks Dr. Lee how poetry and lyrics differ and is told, they don’t: lyrics are simply another form of poetry like a haiku or a sonnet. Just as each type of poetry has its rules, lyrics must have melody. While not all poets agree that their writing is the same as that written for various genres, Dr. Lee explains that all poetry regardless of its form has rythm, intonation, meaning, and emotion.
Levitin learns from his own experiences
Levitin tells us, music is the one thing that differentiates us from other species:
- It’s not the fact that we have a language to communicate with– other animals such as birds, whales, dolphins, even bees, have sophisticated signaling systems. It’s not that we’ve learned to use tools (chimpanzees do that), that we have built societies (ants have those), or learned to deceive (crows and monkeys). It’s not that we’re bipedal and have opposable thumbs (primates) or that we often mate for life (gibbons, prairie voles, angelfish, sandhill cranes, termites). What distinguishes us most is one thing no other animals do: art.
Music allows for the abstract, can be sung by both the hearing and the deaf, and in many cases, is the one remnant in an individual who suffers from a neurological disorder.
Levitin also talks about those songs that get stuck in your head, brought about by a memory, a situation, or even the weather. He describes one example of a rainy day that brought to mind almost 20 songs with rain in the lyrics. I suppose that is one of the downsides of having an extensive musical library. Coincidentally, Levitin explains that many memorable songs are written about nature:
- [Songwriter] Rodney Crowell … argued that the first songs composed by humans probably dealt with the elements, with weather, sun, moon, rain, and so on, because these would have been so central to early man.
I hope I have whetted your taste for Daniel Levitin and are eager to read more. The World in Six Songs is not the only book I’ll be reading by this author!
Continue to part 2 of this blog series.