The music’s too loud and you can’t hear the lyrics

Today’s Nature has a teeth-grittingly bitchy review of psychologist Daniel Levitin’s new music and psychology book The World In Six Songs that would be entertaining were it not so surprisingly vitriolic.

I’ve not read the book, but when someone is criticising the author’s musical taste as immature, not once, but twice, in the world’s leading science publication, you know the review has gone beyond the point of healthy knock-about into the zone of below-the-belt punches.

What is it about Nature book reviews? We covered one in 2007 where the reviewer got stuck in despite not seeming to have read the book.

Actually, no one does a good book barney like the philosophers, who at least have the good grace to wrap their barbs in dry wit and satire rather than just spitting venom at each other (although they do that too).

If you want to get an idea of Levitin’s basic premise, New Scientist has an online article on the book. It seems to be applying the ‘basic plots’ idea to music.

This is widely discussed in literature where many people have claimed to have identified the seven, eight, twenty, thirty six (you get the idea) basic plots in stories, literature and plays throughout history.

Link to hatchet job in Nature.
Link to NewSci on The World In Six Songs.

4 Comments

  1. Posted August 28, 2008 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    I¬¥ve read Levitin¬¥s anterior book and it was great, and to me is really infantile in a forum like “Nature” to acussed one (a cognitive neuroscientist of music) of inmature tastes.
    How can someone dare to judge the “food of neuroscience” of another one, without even tell why?

  2. Posted August 28, 2008 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I think the harshness of the review can be understood if you think about the presumed Nature audience — academics who want to know about the academic quality of the book. This is not a review for the average reader of popular science, and so focuses less on how enjoyable the book is, more on how truthful. In this context it would seem fair enough to criticise any musicological effort that focussed exclusively on Western pop music. This is immature not in the sense that me still liking Metallica is immature, but in the sense that me trying to explain the effect of music on the brain only with reference to Metallica would be immature.
    I agree that parts of the review are below the belt, but I am guessing that the reviewer feels passionately about the subject and resents what he sees as its trivialisation.

  3. Posted August 28, 2008 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    And I should say, of course, that I haven’t read the book so maybe the reviewer (and hence my take on his review) are completely mistaken, I just wanted to offer some sympathy for the position of outraged academic reviewer.

  4. Posted August 29, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Tom, because you are scientist then you are habituated to the business of publishing in “peer-review” process, and at the same time to judge other¬¥s work, in other words, every scientist is simultaneously, juror and plaintiff, and because you have showed a very fine dexterity in reviewing other¬¥s work you have convinced me about it.
    But i still think that even if the book it is restricted to western music, the case to explain how our brains are tuned to emotions, cognitive proceses uderlying rhythm, melody, tempo etc. is not a trivialisation.
    But of course i have not read the book, so…


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