This blog is part 2 of my series exploring Daniel Levitin’s “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature”. I would highly recommend you start at the beginning of 7-part blog series of Levitin’s book to fully appreciate his writing. I would also 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!
Friendship or “War (What Is It Good For?)”
Before I begin the analysis of this chapter, I thought it might be a good thing to take a look at the song Levitin has chosen for this chapter. Levitin doesn’t exactly do this, but from the way the chapter is written, those who know the song will understand why the chapter was named the way it was. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the song originally performed by The Temptations and later released by Edwin Starr, I wanted to provide a brief description.
Composed by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield to protest the Vietnam War, Starr offered to re-release the song to give it a more gritty feel. As a result, the song hit number one on the billboard charts in 1970. Music reviewer, Andrew Hamilton, says the following about the song.
- Whitfield used his bag of studio tricks lavishly: wah-wah guitars, deafening tambourines, and psychedelic elements. But Starr overpowered them all with one of music’s most devastating vocals.
“War (What Is It Good For?)” has also been sampled by many hip hop artists. Further, the song unites anti-war protesters, demonstrates anger, frustration, and sadness, and motivates people to action.
Levitin introduces this chapter by discussing early man, how he defended himself and how he fought against other. He makes the supposition that early man first used music as an offensive mechanism, with loud drums and horns to scare his enemy. Later, early man used music as both defensive and offensive. As a defensive mechanism, early man would stay up, sing and make music all night to keep his enemy at bay or to let him know that they were always aware that an attack could happen.
Levitin continues that music today has themes that unite people — “smokin in the boys room”, “another brick in the wall”, and others — most often those groups already united over a particular cause. Protest songs such as “War (What Is It Good For?)” supported those who opposed the war in Vietnam and gave them a voice louder than they could ever have.
Music is Emotional
Sometimes it’s a genre; sometimes it’s a song’s lyrics, but music as an undeniable emotional affect. Similar to Levitin’s first chapter when he describes the ambiguity of songs or the songwriter’s attempt to leave his lyrics open to interpretation, the tune itself could provide meaning to one and a different meaning to someone else.
Perhaps the most intriguing information Levitin gives related to music and emotion is how music listeners are affected when under the influence of various types of drugs. Both Oliver Sacks and Anthony Storr touch on the subject, but Levitin gives his readers the greatest detail.
- Marijuana: Levitin explains because the active ingredient in marijuana impairs short-term memory, “people stoned on pot tend to hear music from note to note … the music creates what many people describe as a time-standing-still phenomenon”.
- Hallucinogens: these drugs may also create a moment by moment listening experience, but what is unique about the influence of these drugs is they also cause music to enact all five senses – taste, smell, hearing, seeing, and touch. In fact, as Levitin explains the emotional state of listeners specifically under the influence of LSD can unite an audience with a band in a live performance.
Music is Motivational
In the last section of chapter two, Levitin talks of John Lennon’s bed-in from 1969. Lennon used his celebrity status to talk about the atrocities of the Vietnam War. It was also during this time, he wrote “Give Peace a Chance”.
As in times of war or even peace, music can motivate action. Levitin writes that the intrinsic relationship between music and movement can explain why some civilizations survived and others didn’t, how both prisoners and slaves were able to endure hard labor, and how early man prepared for and/or celebrated after hunting and gathering food.
And so concludes my exploration of chapter two.
Continue to part 3 of this 7-part blog series.