This blog is part 6 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 Six: Religion or “People Get Ready”
This Impressions’ song, written by Curtis Mayfield, was recorded in 1965 and is considered the 24th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine. Mayfield said of the song,
- That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.
While reminiscent of black gospel music, the theme of a train indicated moving on and escape from persecution during the civil rights movement. The lyrics also demonstrated how faith can bring people of all races together.
A Controversial Chapter
While Levitin makes some very valid objective points in this chapter, I’m sure many would agree that writing about religion can make you very controversial. It’s my opinion that Levitin understood that he was tip-toeing on to controversial ground and, therefore, waited for the reader to get to the second to last chapter to introduce this part of our nature. Or, he realized that we needed to understand comfort and friendship before we could understand music’s involvement in religion.
Levitin describes specifics of early religions and the current beliefs of what we would consider primitive, isolated tribes of people. He speaks in generalities of current religious practices. These generalities can easily be viewed as stereotypes, and as an adherent to one specific faith, this chapter can be a difficult read.
The Commonalities of Music in Religion
Levitin writes it is neither our language nor our well-developed cerebellum that makes us unique among other living creatures; rather it is our belief system, involving ceremonial routine and music. While it is true animals and insects act in routine, their actions are for survival, whereas ours serve, in general, to please multiple gods or the monotheistic God.
Levitin explains, regardless of your faith, archaeologists have agreed there are similarities among all religions including routine actions are metaphors for sacrifice and obedience; ceremonial actions require reverence unlike actions outside of a religious service; and music and or chanting is almost always a part of ceremonial practices. Such music or chanting includes repetition, call and response, involves synchronization; and acts as reminder of the source of your beliefs.
Ceremonial music is almost always specific to place and/or time. Such music sung or played irreverently could be considered blasphemy. As an example, Levitin writes that singing Christmas songs during the summer may seem strange, it would not necessarily be looked down upon; whereas singing a funeral dirge after a baby is born is entirely inappropriate. This is one point where I would have to disagree.
Primitive religions and orthodox faiths may share the belief that religious songs are bound to time and place, but many so-called reformed religions including evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity would argue that their God is not bound to a building and therefore singing religious songs outside of said building is permitted and in some cases expected. In such cases the act of joining other believers on a certain day and acting out specific rituals including singing religious songs is more reflective of gathering together with other believers. My argument would agree with Levitin’s final words of the chapter:
- Scientific and other religious skeptics often deride the religious by posing the following question: If God is so great that he created the entire universe … why would such a powerful being be so psychologically needy that he wants us to sing to him?
But modern religious thinkers who believe in the existence of God indisputably suggest that the primary reason for this is to benefit the singer, not God.
Taken in that context, it would seem that it is the believer and not the religion that dictates when religious songs should be sung.
The Neurological Component of Ceremonial/Ritualistic Music
Whether you subscribe to the idea that man created religion or that God created religion, neurology has determined there is an area of the brain that is activated during religious practices where
- people report having intense feelings of spirituality and communication with God.
Oxytocin, that same chemical released during orgasms and singing songs of joy and comfort, is also released when singing religious songs. Participation in religious songs and chants also cause us to be in the state of flow, as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as complete contentment in an activity, where doing the activity is more important than the goal of the activity, and where the time required to perform the activity is irrelevant.
What I found most interesting in this chapter is the idea that religion differentiates us from so-called lower forms of life. After reading Levitin’s chapter on religion, it makes perfect sense. Every human group encountered on this planet has a belief system, and while religion does not serve a practical need, it does demonstrate that we as humans recognize there is something or someone outside ourselves who directs us toward morality and ceremonial practices.
Continue to part 7.