The World in Six Songs by Daniel J. Levitin (author of Your Brain on Music) seemed like a gimmick, categorizing music into 6 boxes to show its influence on human evolution and culture. But I got past this premise to see the book as a vehicle for exploring the role of music in our lives – individually, socially and historically.
Levitin groups music in the functional categories of: Friendship, Joy, Comfort, Knowledge, Religion, and Love. His supporting evidence for the importance of music in human culture is heavy on evolutionary biology and biochemistry. How did music become a part of every know human culture? The ability to create and/or appreciate music gives a survival advantage; for example, the ability to act in a unified way when battle is imminent, the sharing/memorizing of important knowledge without written language, or (more obviously) the ability to attract allies and mates. The experience of engaging in music stimulates the release of various neurchemicals that make us feel good (dopamine) and facilitate bonding (oxytocin). Levitin uses everything from hymns to punk rock, from national anthems to lullabies, as examples of how music is linked to human endeavours.
I found that Levitin’s arguments were rambling, with a good dose of name-dropping. The six categories overlapped and some of the examples used were stretched to make them fit the chapter heading. In the end, Levitin does not make a convincing case that music’s role in human culture can be captured in those limited categories. But – maybe because it resonated with many of my beliefs about music – I enjoyed the discussion of music as catalyst for social bonding and sense of well-being.
[The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, Daniel J. Levitin (2008) Viking Canada, Toronto]
Everyone who reads this blog knows I love live music and I’m lucky to live where I can get lots of it. Another thing I love about my community is that I can get local produce almost right through the year. Even when the snow is blowing and we are longing for spring there are tables full of good things to eat at our farmers’ market: apples, honey, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, maple syrup, eggs, potatoes, onions as well as baked goods, sweet and savory.
I brought these two loves together this month when my trio sang at the Elora Farmers’ Market. We saw how the music made people smile when they walked in – some even sang along. And we sang for the vendors, giving them something a little different to accompany their Saturday morning routine.
It may seem circular to write a blogpost about other blogs, but I have come across a few interesting ones I’d like to share with you.
Songwriting Scene was created by singer-songwriter, Sharon Goldman, in June 2009. Goldman, along with the occasional guest blogger, shares many interesting tips on songwriting, singing and the creative process, as well as a tab on “local scenes” which provides some leads on places to play (based in U.S.).
The Educated Songwriter is a vehicle for songwriter & producer, Cliff Goldmacher, to promote webinars and podcasts that can be downloaded for a fee. He also has a blog where you can glean some good info on songwriting and recording.
Brad Spurgeon’s blog covers music, travel, journalism and fiction but the project that most interests me is his Worldwide Open Mic Thumbnail Guide to Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music. Spurgeon’s work as a journalist takes him to cities around the world and he makes good use of his off-duty time by scouting out the live music venues where one can go listen to or play music. Although I won’t likely get to most of the cities he has profiled (Paris, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur & Barcelona, just a few examples) it is interesting to hear about these diverse, thriving shared music scenes. And if I ever get to one of the cities on this continent (Montreal, Austin), I’ll be sure to consult his guide before I go.
The last time I took a songwriting workshop I told myself I wasn’t going to do any more courses on how to write songs. It isn’t that I don’t learn things, but the biggest lesson I always take home is that I just need to spend more time with my music. There are no tricks for making songs fall out of the sky or sprout from the ground, no shortcuts to a song I would really love to sing.
But then I came across a course offered by the Berklee College of Music through an on-line educational initiative called Coursera. Coursera partners with universities from around the world to make personal and professional development accessible to more people. An incredible range of courses is available – from agriculture to politics to science to songwriting – and they’re all free.
Pat Pattison, author of How to Write Better Lyrics, is the teacher. He is featured in a series of short lectures that focus on one detail of a song. There are simple quizzes embedded into these lectures to help you pay attention. Longer quizzes use the work of established artists (Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, among others) to illustrate song structure and technique.
Pattison acknowledges that when songs just come to us out of the blue, flashes of inspiration, bursts of spontaneous creativity, it is a wonderful thing. But that isn’t the only way to craft a song. Each section has an assignment designed to let us try out a particular technique, developing tools for song composition. Pattison claims at the end of one of his lessons: “And that is the cure for writer’s block.”
One innovative element of the course which I like (but is getting mixed reviews from participants) is peer review. Once you have submitted an assignment, the next step is to critique (as constructively as possible) assignments from 5 or more virtual classmates. I like this strategy as it deepens the experience of the exercise by seeing how other people approached it. I also like that we are interacting with each other, not just with the course platform or even the instructor.
Another place where participants interact is the Forum page. Just in the introductions I counted a couple dozen countries (Australia, Spain, Nicaragua, Phillipines, Russia, Brazil just to name a few) and people ranging from 15-61 years of age. Although there are thousands of people registered in the course, forums help connect people in similar geographical regions, or with similar interests or desire for collaboration. A small Ontario contingent is going to meet for coffee next week.
The last two assignments ask us to write and revise a song using the tools introduced in the course, showing our steps along the way. So if you’ll excuse me I have some homework to do . . .