Genres and Lyrics (Review Essay)

The Lyric Book: Complete Lyrics for Over 1000 Songs from Tin Pan Alley to Today, New York: Hal Leonard, 2001. 384 pp.

Daniel J. Levitin, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, New York: Dutton, 2008. 354 pp.

Review Essay by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music scholarship in the twenty-first century has shined significant light on the indispensable roles of music in human life. In contrast to the dominant perception of music as entertainment—a view saturated with ethnocentrism and unsophistication—interdisciplinary allies have begun to see music’s ubiquity as a sign of its evolutionary necessity. The conclusions drawn by this group, made up of anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and others, are not uniform and not uniformly convincing. But the track they’re on seems to be the right one, even if absolute claims about music’s origins would require a time machine to verify.

An enthusiastic representative of this “music is fundamental” group is McGill neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin. In his 2008 bestseller, The World in Six Songs, Levitin argues that six types of songs—friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love—have played a central role in facilitating the development of the human brain and human society. In his analysis, based on a lively mixture of scientific research and anecdotal findings, these song-types comprise the “soundtrack of civilization.” In every age, they have provided a medium for sharing information, strengthening bonds, asserting identities, imparting wisdom, and facilitating a host of other actions and attitudes that aided our evolution and define who we are today.

Reviews of Levitin’s theory and its supporting data have been mixed. While most admire his ambitious claims and appreciate their logical basis, some of his extrapolations have been called overreaching, esoteric, and difficult to demonstrate. His reliance on musical examples from his own catalogue of favorites (read: Caucasian American baby boomer) has added to the criticism, as has his nonchalant placement of the same song in multiple categories (e.g., “I Walk the Line” as a friendship, knowledge, and love song). Even so, Levitin has articulated a remarkably sturdy taxonomy of songs.

The cross-cultural ubiquity of the six song-types seems clear. Virtually every song one can think of fits into (at least) one of the categories, usually with ease. To be sure, this is partly because descriptive approaches are also constructive: when equipped with a set of qualities, we tend to identify those qualities in the things we encounter. We are, after all, the possessors of pattern-seeking brains. Consequently, the sometimes-fuzzy lines between types are ignored to preserve a broader picture.

Levitin’s arguments could have benefitted from a multicultural expansion of musical examples and the toning-down of some assertions. Then again, the book’s biographical vignettes and energetic storytelling help the reader relate to what could have been a dry and jargon-heavy scientific tome. Levitin encourages us to substitute his scenarios with our own life situations and musical favorites, and asks us to imagine our ancient ancestors using music in similar ways, adjusted for their own time and place.

Weaknesses in the evolutionary argument and the song schema itself do not invalidate Levitin’s work. If The World in Six Songs is not wholly convincing, it is at least more accurate than it is wrong.

To test this point, I applied Levitin’s six songs to The Lyric Book, a collection of 1,015 American popular song lyrics from Tin Pan Alley to the date of publication (2001). It is basically a fake book without the music, and is presumably meant for people who are training for a karaoke competition or who wish to settle a bet. The lyrics are pulled from a range of material, including but not limited to blues, early rock ‘n’ roll, jazz standards, country and western, R & B, soul, hip hop, classic rock, Broadway, disco, and bubblegum pop. All of the lyrics satisfy at least one of Levitin’s types, proving both the adeptness of his research and the power of pre-determined categories to define what one is looking for. (My own assessment is that it was mostly the former, though a few songs did have to be pushed and shoved into a category.)

Some words about The Lyric Book before delving into my findings. First, the good: In addition to a table of contents, the book contains an artist index (listing by performers), a songwriter index (listing by songwriters), and an index of songs from musicals, films and television. The bad: Although the lyrics are drawn from mainstream material, there is no preface or introduction explaining the rationale for what was included and what was not. It is also a “company book”: no compiler(s) or editor(s) are credited. As a result, it gives the impression of having been randomly selected and mechanically assembled.

There are some predictable offerings from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Lorenz Hart, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and Richard Rogers. But there are just as many conspicuous absences. For example, of the artists included in LA Weekly’s list of “Top 20 Singer-Songwriters of All Time,” only six found their way into the book—and four of them with just a single song: David Bowie (“Space Oddity”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”), Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”), Willie Nelson (“Crazy”), Hank Williams (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and 2 others), and Stevie Wonder (“All in Love is Fair,” and 10 others). The missing singer-songwriters are Leonard Cohen, Robert Johnson, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Prince, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Elliot Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits, and Neil Young.

Despite these and other flaws (unfortunate typos, uneven genre representation, inconsistent alphabetizing, etc.), the book’s unsystematic nature makes it an excellent testing ground for Levitin’s classification. The 1,015 songs did indeed fit into the six types: friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion and love. Several dozen exhibited multiple themes (e.g., joy and religion, comfort and love, knowledge and friendship), but in each case one theme was deemed primary and the song was placed accordingly.

My examination of the 1,015 lyrics yielded the following:

24 are songs of friendship. These include battle/bonding songs (“We Will Rock You”), songs extolling friendship (“With a Little Help From My Friends”), and songs dedicated to friends (“You’re My Best Friend”).

67 are songs of joy. These comprise songs of carefree enjoyment (“I Get Around”), mindless dance songs (“Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It”), joyful songs of home (“Deep in the Heart of Texas”), songs of life’s pleasures (“Sir Duke”), and “feel good” songs (“These Are the Best of Times”).

95 songs provide comfort. These are songs of perseverance (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”), solace (“In My Room”), encouragement (“Pick Yourself Up”), and regrets (“Holding Back the Years”).

115 are knowledge songs, which consist of morality songs (“Colors of the Wind”), learning songs (“Do-Re-Mi”), story songs (“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”), and protest songs (“Power to the People”).

20 songs deal with religious themes, either with prayer (“God Bless the Child”), theological imagery (“Lost in the Stars”), biblical content (“Turn! Turn! Turn!”), or civil religion (“The Star Spangled Banner”).

694 are songs of love. Their topics include falling in love (“I Finally Found Someone”), staying in love (“Day by Day”), losing love (“I Fall to Pieces), never getting love (“I Can’t Make You Love Me”), the virtues of love (“All for Love”), and lust (“The Look of Love”).

The over-representation of love songs is not surprising given the content of The Lyric Book. The underrepresentation of friendship and religion songs is likewise understandable. If the book consisted of lyrics of another kind—say, folksongs or children’s songs—other categories would be more prominent. But, percentages aside, this exercise in organization highlights the validity of Levitin’s categories, both in addressing a wide assortment of songs, and in helping the cataloguer reduce songs to their basic themes. If American popular music is representative of music as a whole, then there really are six songs—six songs with many faces. And these songs resonate at the core of our species.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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