This blog is part 5 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 the 7-part blog series of Levitin’s book to fully appreciate his writing. I would also highly recommend following Daniel Levitin on twitter 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 Five: Knowledge or “I Need to Know”
Is it a coincidence that this is the longest chapter in the book or that I’ve learned more from this chapter than from any others I’ve already read? Is it a coincidence that I, a self-proclaimed perpetual learner, found this chapter as my favorite? I think not, and maybe that was Levitin’s intention.
Unlike in previous chapters, I don’t think there is a need to explain the song chosen by Levitin. For those unfamiliar with the song, feel free to click on its link and watch the YouTube video.
Each concept in this chapter was an “aha” moment for me: I recognized that what Levitin was writing was true because of my own experiences in life.
Music teaches us
Levitin writes that music and dancing came before speech and writing. It was probably used to tell others about a hunting experience or to warn others of danger. Today, the concept of sharing experiences and warnings is still present, as evidenced in songs of almost any genre.
Music is also used as a bonding mechanism, not only between mother and infant, but also to help children understand past traditions and important ancestors. Similarly, music is used in religion to remind adherents of the teachings of prophets. As a side note, some religions use singing while others use chanting, but the end result is the same: the words accompanied by rhythm enforces information in ways that simple reading or oration can not.
In the Jewish tradition, Moses was the first designated to teach the people not only the ten commandments, but also the history of the people. As an anointed prophet, Moses learned from God how the world was created, the lineage from the beginning through the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, and how ancestors were able to abide in their faith. If that were not enough, God also instructed Moses to teach people orally and tell his people to preserve what they had learned by teaching their children. It can only be assumed that parents taught their children through song: archaeologists were able to confirm the information contained in the first five books of the Old Testament, written, hundreds of years after Moses’ death, when reviewing the dead sea scrolls.
Music helps us learn
The cartoon, Animaniacs, is perhaps the best example of learning through music. Children enchanted by the crazy antics of the show’s characters also learned history, geography, and science through rhyming songs sung by these same characters. I do remember some of those songs as I watched the show after school, and the learning happened almost subconsciously.
Levitin writes we are able to learn through music because of its repetitive rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and common axioms. Children learn the alphabet, counting, and new vocabulary through music. And songs written to stretch words to more than their appropriate syllables or written to include my favorite flats help reinforce what is being taught.
Learning more about music knowledge
Finally, Levitin reintroduces the concept of mentorship. Actually, this is how he introduces his chapter, but I thought it fitting to make it my conclusion.
Levitin writes of his first meeting with a musicologist he had greatly admired and how surprised he was when that musicologist seemingly humbled himself to sit with students who were far below his intellect. I had a similar experience when I met Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi last year. I learned as Levitin did that most experts in our field of study aren’t scary: they want to share their expertise with students, and they want to know our thoughts and how we’re adding to the knowledge of our shared field of study. Now, I’m sure I sounded like a babbling idiot when I sat and talked to Csikszentmihalyi, but I also gained confidence and confirmation that the path I was following was correct. The experience also made me add something to my bucket list that Levitin has already done, and that is to be welcomed to present my knowledge alongside those I have considered my teachers. Next year I hope to attend a music and cognition conference, and I’ll be better prepared with the expectation I’ll have an opportunity to informally speak with an expert.
In summary, I would encourage my readers to think of their best learning experiences, whether it be how you were taught or how you learned. Was music a factor, and if so, what aspects of music helped the teaching and/or learning process?
I also want to encourage you to seek out those you admire and those who have inspired you in your field of study. I hope you will find as I did that they are excited to meet you.
Continue to part 6 of this 7-part blog series.