2.0 out of 5 stars Seriously unreadable, July 2, 2010
By Shannon Thornton-Walsh (Dallas, TX USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (Paperback)
I'm giving two stars, because I didn't feel fully justified in giving one star, seeing as I've only read one quarter of the way through Levitin's book. I ordered it as a free sample from the publisher, who was promoting it as a possible secondary or optional classroom text. I was intrigued. My doctoral research was in ethnomusicology.
I started to read soon after I received the book last year but was immediately put off by one of Levitin's opening statements: "Anthropologists, archaeologists, biologists, and psychologists all study human origins, but relatively little attention has been paid to the origins of music." Huh? OK. Probably true and for good reason. Evidence for music in early human culture is overwhelming, but determining the "why" is an enterprise fraught with complexity and ambiguity. But Anthropology has two entire subfields devoted to evolution on the one hand and the study of music in culture, on the other, which seems to me to be two of the best places to start. Levitin acknowledges and draws on the first, mostly not very confidently, and ignores the second.
I lent the book to a friend and recently received it back and thought I'd push past my initial resistance. Levitin draws on cross-cultural examples to begin supporting his thesis, but not once in the entire book can I find a single reference to any of the pioneering work done by ethnomusicologists. Perhaps this is because Levitin only sourced the work of anthropologists, not music/culture specialists within that field. Why the obvious elision of the entire field of study? It seems to me that more source material from that field would be pretty germane to his thesis. Again, I'm only 1/4 of the way into the book, so more may be coming again, under the guise of anthropological sources, but I'm not likely to continue. The oversight is staggering.
Levitin's grasp of evolutionary theory even seems weak; he makes up examples to illustrate how natural selection works in order to illustrate how this might work with music and song writing ability, and his strongest evidence - despite his recognition that world's store of music consists of a staggering diversity - comes from his analysis of Western pop songs. He seems to be drawing more on his experience working in the music industry than his work as a neuroscientist. I can see how his ideas might make for mildly interesting and entertaining undergraduate seminars in American colleges. Not very convincing reading straight out of the gate.
I finally put this down after reading Levitin's irrelevent digression into his childhood experience of the Vietnam War. Seriously.
If anyone can convince me - as an anthropologist or ethnomusicologist - to continue reading, I'm listening. There's a far more interesting title on my to-read list: The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, by Steven Mithen.