If we are human, we sing.

I am always fascinated with musing about human origins- think of it as Deep Genealogy.The World in Six Songs delves back into brain studies, chemical activity, DNA and all that good stuff to explore the universality and early origin of music. By early I mean at least 37,000 years ago, as a flute made from mammoth tusk has been dated that far back. Chanting, singing and drumming must go immeasurably further back.And I used to think my vinyl record, Musique de la Grece Antique, was old!

The author Daniel J. Levitin, spent many happy years in bands enjoying music of the 80s and 90s before returning to college where he gained a Ph.D. in neuroscience and now runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception at McGill University. His “six songs” are actually six ways we differ from other animals, even if only in degree, in what we convey with songs, mainly  emotions or knowledge. Though I loved hearing the songs of the humpback whales in Hawaii last month, and love waking up to the dawn chorus of birds in England, there is something different in the leap humans took into speech and song- or song and speech perhaps.

For a specific song, a knowledge song, I would remember my family’s history. When our children were young, their dad and I wrote, to the tune of Lemon Tree, a song about the ancestor who came to the U.S. in 1643, a song which includes a list of their father’s father’s father back as far as written records exist: the earliest written record, the baptism register in Streat, Sussex, was in the handwriting of the first directly traceable Tillinghast, the then vicar. Our children could sing fourteen generations of ancestors. They have been working on extending it for their own children.

One of the big ideas in this book is that we remember songs much better, using a different part of our brain and therefore it was probably a survival aid. Think of Natural Selection working for someone who remembered the route to winter shelter or against someone who didn’t.  In modern times, there are still  singers who pass on epics and histories, as Homer with the Iliad, though the invention of writing, and of books, and video has eroded the natural capability we have. Further, we form community when we sing- love, companionship, friendship, again, (usually,) a human strength. Singing of grief together can actually help us feel better and cope, because of the community and also  because of the brain chemicals released as we sing. Religion too probably originated in ritual which is accompanied by music, rhythm and song,  and can embed us in our people’s way of relating to the life cycle, the community and the intimation of something greater. Though Jewish, Levitin deals with music and with the transcendent as an emergent property of a complexifying brain; for him the soul is not “the ghost in the machine” but the hum of the working machine that is our brain. I go with Teilhard. It is evolving consciousness, latent potentially in earlier forms, but transcending them, and it is part of the plan of the Planner. You may disagree of course.

Music clearly ties in probably from the beginning with the development of language, needing self awareness, ability to envisage the future and remember the past, and arrange our perceptions in symbols. Studying the origins of language, when I first read anything about it, depended on visible change inside the skull (Broca’s area) and there was a question of whether the hyoid bone of Neanderthals made speech possible. Now there is also DNA to study: brave new world that has such invisible treasures to delight us. Levitin weaves together references to music- popular, classical, world music, religious music, and descriptions of oxytocin, dopamine, your pre-frontal cortex and a whole potpourri of fascination.

I journey on to a new year of reading fascinating and enjoyable books. It makes me so happy, I could sing about it!

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