This blog is part 4 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!
Chapter Four: Comfort or “Before There Was Prozac, There Was You”
Levitin cheats with this chapter’s title: “Before prozac, there was you” is not the name of a song (I checked!), but rather something a fan said to Joni Mitchell about her music. Music does have that ability to carry us through crises, for some, even better than any drug. As Levitin explains,
- “Neurobiology shows that music – but not speech – activates areas of the human brain that are very ancient, structures we have in common with all mammals … Song has repetition built into it – of rhythms, melodic motifs – and this repetition give song an element of predictability that speech lacks. This predictability can be soothing.”
There were a couple of things I realized or rather discovered in this chapter: first, every chapter in the book is about an emotion, so there’s no reason for me to make “emotion” as a topic in my blogs; and, second, I think I know why Levitin chose 6 songs – no more, no less.
The main theme throughout this chapter is music’s ability to bring comfort, especially in the form of lullabies and Blues’ songs, but I found two other lessons as well: inspiration and education.
Levitin begins this chapter talking about his restaurant job. There was a cassette player in the kitchen, and three tapes had their rotation depending on the day and shift. Each tape had six songs amateurly recorded by its respective owner – the restaurant manager, a waitress, and a dishwasher.
It only took me a moment to realize the coincidence or perhaps correlation between the number of songs and title of the book, but it took me a bit longer to figure out why each tape (or one side of the tape) would only have six songs.
I had my own collection of amateurly recorded music growing up: they were called “my favorite music”, and I think the cassettes numbered up to ten. I painstakingly recorded each one on my pink boom box from our local pop radio station, so I definitely understood the concept of favorite songs, but my tapes had at least 15 songs per side. I would only use those tapes that had the longest recording minutes (180, I think?). What if I had used the shortest? What if I had chosen a 60-minute tape with 30 minutes per side? Well, one answer is I would have a whole lot more than just ten tapes! The second is, I’d probably be limited to just six songs per side.
Levitin tells his readers that each of the restaurant’s cassettes represented the character of its owner, and then, he switches up the discussion from “comforting” music to inspiring music. Levitin takes us into his world as an aspiring musician which was prompted by some of his favorite songs. He lists six and gives his reason for each.
Following his example, I thought about some of those songs I heard from childhood to present day which excited me most about music and probably prompted me to start writing about music. Like Levitin, there are more than just six songs, so I spent some time on this self-directed assignment. After some thought, I compiled this list:
- Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982). Some might say it’s cliche to choose this song, but for me, it was an introduction to the magic of music. My mom had Michael Jackson’s record, but I first heard “Thriller” when I saw the music video. Most of the music videos I had seen at this point showed the artist or band singing while they or others danced. The scenery changed at times, but the structure seemed uniform. Jackson changed that perception for me by acting out his song, and I suppose he is the reason I prefer story-telling music videos/songs over any other format. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Kenny Rogers, and Alabama were the first to introduce me to music, and I am grateful that they were/are some of the greats.
- The Judds’ Rockin’ with the Rhythm of the Rain (1986). It was difficult to choose a ‘rain’ song: I have so many favorites, but this Judds song is pretty high on my list! I first fell in love with the rain as a child wearing a garbage bag with a head hole, sitting outside in the rain with my mom. As an adult I prefer to be inside, wrapped in blankets and listening to raindrops on the windows and roof. Levitin is right: the repetitive rhythm of rain is soothing. The concept of rain in music has so many interpretations from the sound itself to its ability to act and its ability to induce emotion.
- Danny Wood’s Perfect (2003). Call me strange, but when it comes to music, I love flats (b) more than sharps (#) or naturals. It’s the flats that give songs mystery, an unexpectedness, and a haunting flavor. Danny recorded two versions of this song, and it is his acoustic recording off of OFD Unplugged that has become my favorite not only because of the flats, but also because of the lyrics. To put it plainly, don’t walk into relationships expecting perfection from because the new person is no more perfect than you are.
- Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit (1967). If you see me in a karaoke bar, chances are I’ll be singing this song. I first heard it when my aunt sang it, and I fell in love. Yes, I know the song’s reference to drugs, but that wasn’t why I liked the song. I’ve loved to sing since I was very young. In junior high and high school, I would bounce from soprano to alto and back again depending on the song. I never found that perfect song for my voice until I heard this song by Jefferson Airplane, and now, it’s my favorite song. The key is perfect that I don’t have to struggle to reach the highest or lowest note, and as my husband tells his friends, I can really belt it out!
- Faith Hill’s “Breathe” (1999). As I have mentioned in my bio, cross-over hits made me finally realize it is okay to love multiple genres. Up until that point, I had switched every few years from loving one genre to another, abandoning one for another. I know Faith Hill wasn’t the first to have a successful cross-over hit, but she was the one to open up my eyes as this song quickly became a favorite when it was first released to country music listeners.
- Reba McEntire’s “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” (1991). I am more like my dad than I’d like to admit. From him I developed a love of poetry and travel. He also gave me an appreciation of other cultures. It should come as no surprise that as he gave me my best qualities, there are many songs I associate with him: Wind Beneath my Wings, Best of Intentions, and The Greatest Man I Never Knew are just a few. Reba’s song was the first, and it held even more meaning after his death when I realized for almost my entire life, I had only seen him as an alcoholic.
I’m not sure if education is the right word for this second theme, but it was the best one-word summary that came to mind. I’ve written a bit about musician mentorship before, but Levitin describes it so perfectly in this chapter. Levitin explains, he had always played in bands where the musicianship was equal or where his abilities were superior to the others in the band. The results of these efforts were stagnancy and/or failure, so he turned to his dad for advice:
- If I was to become a professional, I had to be the worst member of the band …. I set out to become good enough that I could join a band of musicians who were just out of my league, who could help raise me up a notch in ability, who saw in me some potential that could be sculpted and molded.
Skill and/or natural talent isn’t enough. It is a necessity to learn from others who know more. Levitin’s lesson, learned from his dad, is really applicable to any industry: always be humble, willing to learn, and desiring to teach.
Continue to part five of this 7-part blog series.