Music makes the world, especially when it is religious

Published December 2, 2008

ODDS ARE WE each have a favourite piece of music that opens us to the divine. For some it is the solemnity of the Georgian chant, the haunt of the Buddhist horn, the rollicking of gospel music, the magnificence of the organ.

Regardless of the musical genre, the chord and word separately and together bring us to God, God to us, and all of us together. There is no culture on earth, and no evidence that there ever was a culture, that doesn’t practice religion or doesn’t inextricably mix together religion and music. And that fundamental reality leads Montreal neurologist Daniel J. Levitin to explore a stimulating number of questions about what this might say about who we are and why.

Levitin is that strange combination of musician and scientist who stunned the world with his ground-breaking work, This Is Your Brain On Music, which explored in provocative ways the physical links between brain structure and music. And while most writing on the chemical, biological and electrical operations of the brain tend to have a reductionist tone, Levitin has a way with words and a style of conjecture that leaves the reader more awestruck than diminished.  

Levitin takes the explanation of how the brain interprets music to a quantitatively new plain in this book. “Music is not simply a distraction, but a core element of our identity,” he writes, and further argues that music paved the way for much more complex behaviours and those include: memorialization, commemoration, the construct of meaning, the forming of community, and the space for contemplation of the most fundamental questions of existence.

The World in Six Songs is a near encyclopedic journey through six types of songs – friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. He argues that the archetypes cover all music and all aspects of human nature, though when he turns his sights on religion you begin to truly understand that religion could be the overarching concept that explains all the other types of songs and human nature and existence.

[pullquote]Levitin uses anthropology, psychology, biology and a deep understanding of how music works to explore what science tells us about when we first clue into the power of music (very early, while still infants); how music opens the brain and the heart to feelings of ecstasy, communion, hope, love and ultimately mourning; how different cultural forms of musical styles are transcendent while reflecting local conditions; how we make music and ultimately how music makes us.

Perhaps it is because of his background as a musician that Daniel Levitin is that most rare of scientist, one who appreciates that whatever the lab results tell him, he doesn’t need to and is incapable of using the graphs and test scores to explain God or religion. He accepts that he can learn the way humans evolved without having to explain the metaphysics of why humans evolved.                          

The book is a musical tour de force, filled with examples that make you want to hear the very songs he is using as illustration of ceremony, style and function.  And as he notes early on we can do just that. “We live in a time of unprecedented access to music. Virtually every song ever recorded in the history of the world is available on the Internet.” It is literally an invitation to do the exploration yourself. Note what he says about the power of religion and music: “The greatest music of all time has been religious.” Fire up the computer and explore.


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