Six Ways To Use Music

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Daniel Levitin’s best-seller, This Is Your Brain On Music, contained some provocative stuff. The musician-turned-neuroscientist also displayed a philosophical streak, with answers to questions like “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” His answer – an unequivocal NO. Sound, he wrote, is not the vibration of air molecules, but the perception of those vibrations by a human or animal ear. In other words, there is no sound (or music) unless there’s an observer to hear it.

Now, Dan has a second book, The World In Six Songs, which posits that human brains evolved to make and hear and understand 6 basic types of song: songs of friendship, comfort, joy, knowledge, religion, and love. Also a provocative thought. Where are the songs of war or hatred? Work songs? The cries of alarm that would’ve been one of our earliest evolutions from the cries that other primates use when predators are near?

This reminds me of a psychology professor who once told our class that there are no bad behaviors. The scandalized students immediately responded with war, child abuse, and host of other bad behaviors. No, the professor said; those are bad actions, but the underlying behaviors (which usually involved either killing or sex or both) are evolutionary necessary. Humans needed to be able to kill because the alternative was usually being killed. The sexual urge kept the species alive. Cheating on your spouse might be a poor choice of action – and in some societies, a crime – but the underlying behavior is the propagate the species and diversity the gene pool, both good behaviors. So Daniel Levitin’s proposal of 6 fundamental types of song has a similarly counterintuitive cast to it. But there’s science to back it up – love songs release dopamine, a “feel good” hormone in the brain. What do you think?

I believe that’s the same hormone that’s released when you support your public radio station’s capital campaign during its One-Day Challenge Grant Fundraiser