Saturday, May 01, 2010

Music Memetics

'MEME' is a trendy word these days, so popular in fact, that it is also now itself a meme. The word is often used to describe viral video, but what does 'meme' mean, actually? As it happens, the definition of ‘meme’ is in a bit of a state of flux –still evolving, it may be said– as specialists attempt to apply the concept to their own specific field of study.

First coined by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, the meme was conceived as “a unit of cultural transmission.” And like genes, memes propagate themselves following the rules of evolutionary biology. Others have since modified this definition by declaring the meme not just ‘a’ unit, but ‘the smallest possible unit’ of cultural transmission. However, this modification is by no means universally accepted. Not to mention that two other necessary questions remain unanswered, being: What is a ‘unit’? And: what is ‘culture’?

Susan J. Blackmore, in ‘The Meme Machine’ (2000), points out, Dawkins himself expresses contrary definitions about memes, and why shouldn’t he? It’s clear from the tone of his writing that he thinks the concept is new to him, too, and yet because he realizes that it is so exciting and so potentially revolutionary, that he has to share it with us before it's fully formed

First, Dawkins says, “A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain.” But then he also says that a meme “can propagate from brain to book”, and presumably from book to brain.

Arguably, these are not really contradictory statements, since books, media, computers and really, any man made device or object, for that matter –whether capable of storing retrievable recorded information or not– are all but kinds of external hard drives for our brains, i.e. places to stockpile the ideas of a man or an age for another day or another century. If this were not so, how could an archaeologist retrieve information from a clay pot? And yet, in point of fact, he or she does, with considerable regularity. One might even be forgiven for thinking that all relics come standard with a USB or Firewire port.

It is not exactly accurate to say this, but it is fun to consider that a shared misunderstanding of the word meme has also become a meme.

Ultimately, Blackmore decides to define meme as simply: “whatever it is that is passed on by imitation".

She also writes “We do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes.” Maybe this was true in 2000, but it is not completely true today. At the very least, new research indicates that when we learn something, there is an actual change in the physiology of the brain. One reason why it maybe so hard to break old habits, is because it is not simply a matter of changing one's behavior, but doing so long enough to form new brain physiology.

Sort of makes it scary to think that the ear worm in your head isn't simply repeating all by itself, but that you are quite literally and actively engraving it into the white matter of your brain to enjoy for the rest of your life.


As a result of this interest in memes, a fascinating topic of study regarding the application of meme theory to music has begun to sprout (one might even say replicate).

What is a musical meme? Well, one can think of a memorable tune as a meme, but only so long as we preclude the notion that a meme must also represent 'the smallest unit' of communicable information. Beyond that, definitions abound.

In 'The Memetics of Music: A Neo-Darwinian View of Musical Structure and Culture' (2007), Steven B. Jan tackles the task of applying Dawkin’s concept to music. I do not always agree with his conclusions, if only because the concept is still too elastic, and can therefore be made to fit almost any precept. How then to reduce the concept to one specific set of rules? It can be a clunky exercise; even Dawkins had difficulty with his own creation:

“So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of. But of course, it is far from obvious. I have said a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that? Is each movement one meme, each recognizable phrase of melody, each bar, each chord, or what?” [The Selfish Gene, p. 195]

It sometimes appears, we can regard anything reproducible, and therefore, anything man made, as a meme –and one day, that may in fact be the consensus. But for the purposes of this present discussion, I agree with Jan when he states:

“The biological analogy, indeed replicator theory itself, suggests that memes tend towards the latter end of the continuum Dawkins outlines –towards existence as short and clearly demarcated rather than long and diffuse units.”

Naturally, I'm unconvinced with examples that strike me not so much as transmissions of cultural information as they do the essential building blocks of western music theory, as when Jan suggests a common chord progression is a meme. But why shouldn't it be?

It strikes me harmony plays a supporting role to the actual meme. For instance, IV–I, commonly referred to as 'the Amen Cadence' supports a melodic line composed of a subdominant tone moving to the tonic. Are we to accept the chords sounding in tandem with the actual meme a meme itself?

We can also accept that the ii-V7-I cadence can also be said to transmit some kind of cultural idea –western civilization in its totality, perhaps(?)– if our definition is limited to the notion that a meme is a 'short and clearly demarcated' 'cultural transmission', and leave it at that. But by Jan's own standard, a (musical) meme is expressed only when it is sounded by a combined given arrangement and tonality.

Ergo, the following must be true:

The ii-V7-I cadence –or any other cadence– transmits different messages whether relayed by Stradivarius or Stratocaster.

Personally, I believe the mathematical foundations underpinning music theory have archetypal rather than memetic origins, even if certain expressions only replicate in one culture and not another, in the same way we accept signs are born of archetypes but may be expressed differently depending where, when and how they become manifest.

Also, I subscribe to the notion that a meme presents itself as a complete and independent statement.

All of this begs the question: What came first? The Meme or the Archetype?

If we accept the theory of Jungian archetypes, the meme strikes me an expression of the archetype:

The archetype is elastic. The meme is not. The archetype is universal, the meme culturally specific. The Archetype is primordial and therefore original. The meme, on the other hand represents a copy, however popular, born not of the Source but out of the Zeitgeist. And while we are, for the most part, unconscious of the Archetype. the meme reminds us of its presence every chance it gets.

If archetypes grow up to be memes, then the process bears a striking resemblance to the evolution of Brands. Graphic designers and brand managers do everything they can to define a mark before launching it into the world, but logos only actually become Brands when enough consumers endow and reflect consensual meaning/s onto or into a merchant or marketer's symbology.

Dawkins makes no such distinctions however. In practice, any viral idea is referred to as a meme.

I’m not sure what to think when Jan writes:

“…memes which appeared initially in symphonies composed by Haydn in the isolation of Eszterhaza in the 1770s continue to copy themselves into the brains of concert goers on the West Coast of America in the twenty first century.” –and later he declares “For the longevity of musical memes, the greatest advance was the development of notation.”

I'm confused because he seems to asks us to accept that any 'convention' is a meme, as when he writes:

“…one such example is the 'motto' opening of classical-period symphonies and sonatas where, irrespective of the nature of the pitch and rhythmic material, a piano-forte dynamic antithesis is stereotypical.”

If we accept that a meme is anything, then best the description of meme is the one posited by some anonymous editor or copywriter who writes in promotional copy printed on the inside jacket of Blackmore's book: “…a meme is any idea, behavior, or skill that can be transferred from one person to another by imitation: stories, fashions, inventions, recipes, songs, ways of plowing a field or throwing a baseball or making a sculpture.”

But if that is the case, and we are still intent on defining some precise and practical definition of 'meme', that we may justly apply the concept to our music endeavors, then we will have to shoot the word through a conceptual super collider, so that we may identify and examine even smaller particles of cultural transmission.

I'll save for another day further discussion on this topic specifically, and later examine the notion of nano memetic structures I call 'Quantum Audio', being fundamental audio units which once identified can be extremely useful in the construction and transmission of music design.