Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - August 22, 2008

The sound of science

Daniel J. Levitin unites science and music to give insight into the human brain

by Jill Kimball

He'd already captured the attention of half a million readers with his first book, "This is Your Brain on Music," a simplified explanation of music's functions and how the human brain understands them so well. He had the world's attention, and now he would teach it a lesson.

"I thought, now that I have this audience, is there something I can do that would be essentially a kind of public service?" Stanford alumnus and bestselling author Daniel Levitin said in an interview. "What can I teach people about science in general?"

Levitin, a neuroscience researcher at McGill University in Montreal, decided he'd educate the public about the evolution of the human brain through a subject we can all understand: music.

Thus was born "The World in Six Songs," a neuroscience lecture in layman's terms that hooks readers with the catchy idea that all music ever created can be classified into six categories: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. Curious readers would, Levitin hoped, open the book to see how he explained such an ambitious theory and close it with more knowledge about evolution.

One of Levitin's theories detailed in his book is that music played a big role in creating society and culture all over the world, not just the other way around. He mentions a wide variety of styles, including 6,000-year-old Persian verse, recordings from biblical times, and ancient tribal African drumming. What they all have in common, he says, is emotion no one can express in spoken conversation or prose. That emotion can bring people together, creating friendships and communities.

"I believe that songs are a reflection of human emotion and the human condition, and all cultures experience the same basic emotions," Levitin said.

Levitin's new book started creating curiosity even before it came out. A week before the book was to be released, it was in its third printing to accommodate pre-order demands. Sales figures may shoot up even more after a national book-signing tour that takes the author to Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, on Aug. 25.

Even the most widely read science writers don't typically boast a readership that includes average Americans. So what's Levitin's secret? A lot of big names.

"Going in, I had the support of musicians," said Levitin, a former record producer. "A number of musicians who've read advanced copies the publisher provided asked if there was something they could do to help promote the book."

Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell performed at Levitin's book-signing in New York City on Aug. 19, the day "The World in Six Songs" was released. Both bass player Victor Wooten and David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads, want to play a role in his book-signing tour.

Although Levitin makes it look easy in his writing, he said combining studies from so many scientific subjects to explain music and the brain is exhausting. He had a little help from his alma mater, Stanford, where he earned a bachelor's degree in cognitive psychology and cognitive science.

"Stanford is at the forefront of interdisciplinary work, and that's what my whole research program at McGill has been about," Levitin said. "One has to combine music and anthropology and psychology with neuroscience. I use all that in the book."

Levitin looks forward to returning to this area for his Kepler's reading. He even fears he won't want to leave once he gets here.

Palo Alto, he said, "is the most beautiful place I know of. I like Montreal, but I think the Bay Area is always going to be my home."

What: Author Daniel J. Levitin speaks on his new book, "The World in Six Songs."

Where: The lecture and book-signing is at Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park.

When: At 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 25.

Cost: The lecture is free; the book is $25.95.

Info: Go to www.keplers.com or call 650-324-4321.

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