Note that this was drafted in 2009, when this site was first created. The style of working for this book has changed since then.
Daniel J. Levitin’s book The World in Six Songs scratches an intellectual itch that I didn’t know I had. As a singer and songwriter who also works on sustainable development theory, practice, policy, data, etc., I resonate strongly with his combination pop music producer and neuroscience. I’m only 25 pages into the book, but it is compulsive reading for me, as it opens up one of several new topics in this research that have only occurred to me since starting this blog — in this case, the role of the arts, poetry, music generally in framing our capacity to envision the future.
Levitin writes about six kinds of songs — friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, love. I wonder if I will agree with him, by the time I’ve finished reading, that these categories are comprehensive? Where do songs of longing, hope, and wonder fit in, for example? I just wrote one of those recently (called “Set the World Right Again”) and can’t imagine that fitting easily into one of those six categories.
On the other hand, I write a lot of “knowledge” songs, that is, songs that try to make ideas more memorable. These have fallen out of fashion in the modern world, says Levitin; we have only the ABC’s and number songs and the like to remind us of how central such songs were in earlier eras. So perhaps my own “Exponential Growth,” or the new little ditty on the weird economics of discounting the present value of natural resources (“Damn the Discount Rate”), are actually old-fashioned.
Levitin’s central thesis appears to be that music and poetry — and their union in song — is at the very heart of human cultural and even recent biological (in the case of the brain) evolution. Not, “I think therefore I am,” but “I create, therefore I am human“. An interesting thesis, easy to accept if one is of a creative temperament. And a great starting point for the question: to what extent is our ability to imagine and create better futures dependent on our capacity to create, for example, songs as well?