Music producer-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin appears to think so. In his latest book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, he discusses how music has played a vital role in the evolution of language, thought, and culture. The book deals with six kinds of songs, six ways that we have always used and experienced music in our lives These six ways, corresponding to six significant elements of human nature include friendship, joy, comfort, religion, etc.

When I finished reading the chapter on friendship in this book, I found that it deals with not only fellowship and understanding but also the opposite of such feelings, such as enmity. Human evolution is a story not only of affinity but also jealousy, acrimony, antagonism, and hostility between individuals, between groups and clans, and between nations. This enmity and aggression are given expression through violence and warfare. Using many examples from our evolutionary history and contemporary life, Levitin explains that music has helped forge people together in a common cause, whether it is the solidarity expressed by a group of high school radicals or an ancient tribe keeping the enemy at bay. There are other instances where music fulfills a complementary purpose, too; that is, it serves to enhance the effectiveness also of the aggressor. For instance, Native Americans often sang and danced both to prepare themselves for battle and to instill fear in their enemies.

Similarly, both Romans and nineteenth-century Germans feared the Scots in part because of their music and the hair-raising spectacle associated with it. Levitin concludes that music  and collective participation in it  may thus provide humans with a survival advantage. This is because we use music at a personal level to broadcast our own emotions as well as (and more extrinsically) for the (political) purposes of calming, energizing, organizing and inspiring.

Using music for energizing & and inspiring men to meet political objectives, I realized, could be happening even today. In an article for The Atlantic Monthly, Xan Rice, a journalist based in Kenya, notes how some of the rebels currently fighting Gaddafi s forces around Misrata psyche themselves up by listening to rock and pop music. Less than three months before enlisting in the battle for Misrata, the rebels whom Rice interviewed were some twenty-something college students strumming their guitars and listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden. They decided to join the fighting when the ravages of Gaddafi s forces intersected their personal lives. In the case of Shaka, for instance, his uncle grabbed an RPG to fight with when Misrata s armory was overrun. The uncle was later shot dead by Gaddafi s men, and the nephew inherited the RPG and a thirst for battle. The house of his fellow-rebel Essraity was hit by a tank shell, and it impelled Essraity to join the rebel cause. Rice explains how music is interwoven into the daily lives of these dissenting fighters. For example, Bozaid, a machine gunner, prepares for battle by listening to Slayer on his Smartphone. Some of the fighters also played on their guitars and sang during lulls in the fighting and dreamt about the rock festivals (a Libyan version of Woodstock?) they were hoping to organize when the fighting is over. A picture of RPG warfare in an age of iPods and smartphones? As Rice points out, how many have sung Pink Floyd s Mother within earshot of the enemy in the dead of night?

Will the bond provided by their love of the songs of Neil Young and Nirvana provide the Misrata fighters the evolutionary advantage that Levitin alludes to and help them overcome the enemy? Well, such an aspiration may not be so far-fetched after all when you remember that music may, in fact, have had something to do with the regime change that happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. The then-new Communist government had suppressed free speech by imprisoning several intellectuals and musicians and music groups. The latter included the band, the Plastic People of the Universe (PPU), who were stopped from playing not because, as Levitin points out, of any inflammatory lyrical content but simply because of their long hair and emulation of capitalist bands like the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa. A Czech human rights movement eventually emerged as a reaction to such suppression, culminating in the non-violent Velvet Revolution that ended Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. May be music is after all the themes underlying both the Velvet Revolution and the Arab Spring forty years later.

By S. Venkatramanan