Daniel Levitin's new book sounds like it could form the basis of a great party game: If music—Levitin uses the word "song" to stand in for all forms of it—can be sorted into just six categories, what should those distinctions be? More importantly, who can make the best playlist for each category? Unfortunately, The World In Six Songs: How The Musical Brain Created Human Nature never goes so far as to set up this game, and its theories crack wide open when Levitin loses sight of his original premise.
For Levitin, a cognitive psychologist, former music producer, and author of This Is Your Brain On Music, the categories denoted by intangibles like "comfort" represent purposes which music has held—and to some degree, still holds—in the development of human society. The song a clique of teenagers name as "theirs" and the midnight singing ritual of a Brazilian tribe are both songs of friendship, while a discussion of religious music links the repetitive actions of praying or clapping to secular iterations of group movement like the Hokey Pokey. In each chapter, he incorporates interviews with musicians like Joni Mitchell or David Byrne, or stories from his research and his life. (One episode about a squabble among restaurant workers over what to play in the kitchen is especially poignant.)
It's a neat concept whose speculative fun is then drained chapter by chapter, as Levitin's idea of relevant research comes into question. He attempts to squeeze a semester's worth of neurological factoids into an under-300-page book that's also tasked with delivering Neil Diamond lyrics. Though he does get Sting to philosophize about his vowel abuse, Levitin shoehorns theories of familial evolution into a section about love, and an analysis of the power of psychics into a discussion of joy. When his interdisciplinary approach does succeed—the chapter on knowledge songs is the best—he slights the most fascinating material, giving short shrift even to his own stories about playing in a country band as a college dropout. The biggest disappointment of The World In Six Songs isn't Levitin's lack of love for the material he studies; it's the profound discord between that love and his ability to express it without digging so far into his expertise that no one can follow.