Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of my favorite works from the Baroque era is the Sonata No. 1 in G minor for solo violin, by Johan Sebastian Bach. And one of the things I admire about it is that when the Presto section is performed, it not only serves as a means to display a given musician's technical mastery, but that even when played at half time or quarter time, the sequence of notes create the illusion that this work can go on forever. In this way the score sometimes strikes me as containing a secret code for perpetual motion, much the same way some believe the Bible has embedded within it a Torah code or Rapture mathematics.

J.S Bach: Sonata for solo violin No.1 in G Minor, Presto BWV1001

Another particularly brilliant aspect of this work is that while it presents itself as a series of broken chords, Bach has so conceived the pitch sequence that our ears are given to an aural illusion of transcendent melody floating upon a driving harmonic engine. Although not an ostinato , this effect reminds me how repeating patterns can fall upon our ears as both a linear sequence, or as an underlying dimensional sonic color, and sometimes both.

Here is another example:

J.S Bach: Prelude No. 1, C Major, BWV 846 [v03]

While Bach's Prelude No. 1, C Major (1722) is beautiful on its own, I think I actually derive more pleasure from a derivative work composed nearly a century and half later by French Composer Charles Gounod. Gounod essentially superimposes a new and original melody of his own upon Bach's piece, resulting in the equally evocative 'Ave Maria':

Charles Gounod: Ave Maria

Is Gounod's 1859 score for 'Ave Maria' evidence of the first mashup? One would like to think so, and that Gounod, perhaps, represents an early precursor to the likes of Armin van Buuren, Fatboy Slim, P. Diddy and other sample based composers and DJs, and that with 'Ave Maria', he thereby paves the way for hiphop and trance which would come only another 150 years later.

But the fact is, the way Gounod appropriates Bach is not so uncommon as one might first think. Inspiration often works like this, with new melodies blossoming forth from the fertile harmony of another work. Why should that be any surprise, really? Music has the power to inspire not just new activity, new love and new ideas, but also new music as well.

As it happens, it's works such as this Bach/Goundod collaboration that lead me to think that the genius of the modern minimalist, Phillip Glass, is that he, like Gounod, appears to have taken a Baroque convention and expanded on it. But whereas Gounod adds an ethereal top coat to the Baroque harmonic vehicle, Glass finds pleasure by discovering new and inventive ways to let the engine itself run on to infinity.

As such, I either hear more commonalities in Glass' work with 18th Century music than I do with the works of any of Glass’s modern contemporaries, or I simply enjoy searching for them. This includes other minimalist composers such as Steve Reich or Terry Riley, –or even Ravi Shankar, whose work Glass has indicated as a strong influence from his time working for him.

Philip Glass: Glassworks

Of course, neither Bach nor Glass (or Gounod for that matter) are the only composers who trade in repeating patterns. Most conventional music, whatever the genre or cultural heritage, is built upon repeating patterns. But great composers all share a similar knack for altering repeating harmonic patterns so as to create stylistically individual and recognizable works.

Another thing that makes both Bach and Glass so interesting to me is that both composers capably produce the effect of motion though space.

If Glass is cinematic, Bach is compelling. But both are a bit of the other, actually, even if the latter predates the invention of film by a century and a half.

I like to imagine that the German composer was no doubt #soundtracking to his own tunes while he walked the streets of Leipzig way back in 1730. Who needs a radio or an iPod when your own brain gives birth to terabytes more music on a Sunday than most people have contained on a circa 2010 portable playback device?

And because Bach and Glass are both particularly compelling and cinematic, commercial media producers often turn to these composers and their works –and even to the suggestion of their works– for inspiration. Either Glass' influence runs deep, or media producers like to sync to nothing better than the haunting kineticism produced by reloading arpeggios, and they like it the way some people enjoy hiphop, on EVERYTHING.

But why? And why and how could this technique have so many applications?

I think it happens something like this:

Repeating patterns act upon brain cognition in at least pertinent two ways. First they demand our attention, initiate beta waves in the brain and thereby produce a feeling of alertness. The result is increased sensory sensitivity and a heightened level of aural awareness. Our ears once open, our hearing then becomes ready to tune into any incoming information, and our minds prepared to focus any subsequent message.

However, left unabated, our senses in very short order attenuate to the pattern. Our brains then produce alpha waves, and we relax. The pattern then becomes transparent, and we give in to the music.

An adept composer or songwriter recognizes when this shift occurs and at this point will introduce a lyric or melody. Another kind of sonic artisan might introduce a message, or signal a shift in story structure. Still another kind of composer, one concerned with mediation or healing, might signal no such thing at all, and simply let the power of the pattern continue without interruption or transformation.

In effect, repeating patterns in music trigger nearly simultaneous ratios of alertness: calmness, focus: receptivity.

I imagine it's the musical equivalent of smoking a post coital cigarette.

Synced to pixels, it's as if the moving image has been charged with both perpetual motion and perpetual emotion.

In this regard, it might even be said that the repeating pattern represents the perfect carrier of semiosis in media, movies and not to mention not-so-subliminal messaging –any content platform, actually.

In fact, I think it possible that no idea (or motif or message) is too majestic or too scant that it can't be capably delivered upon the undulating wave of a recycling sequence or arpeggio.

Such is the power of the pattern.

I. Michaelson: Google Chrome 'Dear Sophie'

M. Montes: Starbucks 'Vote'

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


For the purpose of this article, I'm going to define 'pattern' as a series of repeating sets, with each set containing at least one thing or concept that act or are positioned according to an identical and recognizable logic, so that the sets might said to share a corresponding relationship with one another.

(Click the link in the following sentence, however, if you'd like to read a more formal definition of the concept from Wikipedia.)

A linear pattern can be defined as series of points on a graph (or notes on a staff), but a pattern that expresses itself across several different platforms can seem to resist linear graphing, because it is assembled from a matrix of multidimensional data. Even more difficult if one platform is exists in a the physical world, and the other is a conceptual platform manifest in our brains.


For instance, if we watch the weather or the stock market, we arrive at a specific numeric value on a daily basis, the temperature or the Dow. We can then plot that value on a graph and over time analyze the graph for patterns. But we cannot extrapolate what it means to experience a drop in atmospheric pressure or the market from a mere number.

Likewise, a notated melody conveys information about a series about pitches. In this regard it is like any other pattern plotted on a plot/staff. But melody may also present itself as a carrier for emotional or semiotic content, and it must be performed if it is to be properly understood, decoded and (hopefully) replicated by listeners.

So it may be said that while a plot capably presents data, it is a poor delivery platform for experience. However, one reason why plot analysis remains intriguing is because by identifying and studying patterns we might learn how to reverse engineer an experience, the way a musician interprets a score in order to convey something about the human condition for a given audience.

So, really the identification of patterns in audio must be expressed as more than a series of sounds that share some relative relationship. We must also inquire as to patterns which evoke an emotional response. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact, musicians, composers, beat makers, songwriters and sound designers do this everyday, albeit with varying degrees of awareness.


In musical memetics, we analyze a work in order to identify patterns which lend themselves to such reproduction. A series of two or three notes sharing a particular intervallic and rhythm structure can describe a motif; a motif being a repeated meme throughout a given work, and which if it is successful is also scattered throughout or embedded in the culture.

Memes suggest a relationship to biology. Yet, in specific regards to the application of memetic theory to sound, sound predates biology. It is pre-biotic and pre-linguistic. What is new is for an organic sensor to respond by triggering an emotional reaction to this incoming data set. And also, our capacity to organize it in a cognate way no animal before us seems quite capable of doing, the infinite sounds of songbirds notwithstanding. This is to say, we understand how to charge sound with both feeling and meaning.

I sometimes think that if a dog's ignorance of our language is indicative of what some define as a diminutive cognitive ability, then what does inability to understand what dogs say, say about our own brains?

This still young study of music memetics suggests an expanded study of motif, which when combined with a knowledge of semiotics, appears to promise a deep, sophisticated tool kit for the sound designer interested in using audio as a carrier of symbolic data, and not just as a confirmation of an onscreen event.


I think we should not remain content, however, to accept 'meme' as synonymous with 'idea', as is often suggested. Because, what would be the point? By this definition every point on a graph is a idea and a meme, and how does that help us?

Nor should we accept that a meme is simply an idea that replicates, and therefore one memetic structure shares equivalency with another. In other words – all viruses exhibit viral properties, and so what, unless they somehow impact our lives in a significant manner. For as it happens, some viruses pass through our bodies without our ever knowing of their presence, while others will kill you.

The fact is all ideas once ignited into a network spread, and by that definition every single word, every letter is a meme –is a replicating idea. Maybe so in the broadest sense, but that knowledge alone will not necessarily help us achieve creative assets that reach and engage a broad audience.

It may not even be correct to say that an idea is appropriated, because a brain once exposed impresses upon itself real, physical and structural changes to the brain matter itself. So, it may be truer to say that ideas appropriate humans.

Far be it from me to suggest that your ideas are not your own, but in fact, that might be exactly the truth.

Perhaps the key is to investigate whether an idea appears to be replicated or is replicating. What is the distribution method? Is something popular because people know about it, or do people know about it because it's popular. These are purely a semantic questions because, ultimately, all ideas spread in much the same manner, from one human to another.


More to the point, by asking such questions we are reminded that before we advance further, we will need to limit our definition of meme to certain, mutually agreeable, parameters. In music, it needs to be defined as more than just a single note. But as Richard Dawkins, the originator of the concept even inquires, is a meme an entire work, or a portion of a work? Is it a hit song or just the hook? Can it be a cadence?

In this practice, I suggest we identify a meme as a thing, a fully formed construct, formed from more than one idea (or point), and which together can be said to behave like an earworm. This notion suggests not a single impulse, but a fully mapped pattern composed in such a way that it distributes culturally relevant data and concludes where it begins, forming a cognitive loop.

That is why some do say a meme is simply an idea that wants to replicate, and leave it at that, because we perceive the thing as replicating within our own brains as though by some sort of self generating cognitive cell division.

However, in the system proposed here, the pitch center 'A' 440 may be considered an idea that has been replicated, while the melody for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (or the hook of any popular song) is a meme.


From catch phrase to catchy melody, memes are generally linear in our perception of them. Those involved expanding the field will no doubt attempt to invent theories that establish memes in texture, timbre and dynamics. But I think that such pursuits describe another branch of study, belonging to Quantum Audio, because texture, timbre and dynamics color the meme, but are not distinct patterns that follow and independent and individual trajectory. That is, patterns they may be, but they are entirely dependent on a carrier.

Without a melody or readily apparent pattern to shade, they do not exist. They could said to find a parallel in inflection, and are therefore akin to sub particles, or behaviors, perhaps more closely related to internally manifest, God-made, or Nature-made, archetypes than the externally man made concepts we call memes.

So, for the purposes of Quantum Audio Theory, a meme represents a small cohesive compositional unit, but not the smallest musical unit, examples of which include note and pitch, even if such units are the result of a replicated and much used concept. Music itself will be said to represent a man-made, organized means of communication while any given work a single sonic event, the same way 50,000 words can be identified as a book.


One might reasonably argue that just because something can't be seen without a microscope (or telescope) doesn't mean it doesn't exist. This is true, but it is equally true to suggest that such things lack cultural significance, although their discovery and replication of that knowledge might indeed be the result of an external cultural impulse to explore or investigate.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis is not a meme.
But the pattern of habits that allowed the Plague to spread through Europe is.

A love for the music of Beethoven (or Coltrane or Julie Feeney) is not a meme. But the hook or motif that seems set to psychologically irresistible internal repeat, leaving ecstatic holes in your brain is (although certain, obsessive ways by which admiration and fandom is made manifest might indeed be defined as memetic).

–With one important caveat:


If we further narrow the definition of meme as only popular phenomenon that serves as the smallest carrier unit for cultural information, then we must expand our notion to include not mere melodies, but melodies that deliver according to that rule. Thus a hook may be quite catchy, but not contain enough information to be a substantive cultural carrier. Indeed, many melodies appear culturally neutral.

To put it another way, a given melody is equally capable of sounding like nursery rhyme as it is a section of a work of Heavy Metal. Thus we may conjecture that what any single, linear melody expresses is not necessarily inherent to the pitch pattern sequence, but the result of an individual Quantum Audio overlay.

And regardless of Quantum Audio overlay, an earworm, for instance, might say nothing of its point of cultural origin, but that doesn't stop your brain from repeating the thing over and over again with a kind of memetic madness.

Apart from memes, Quantum Audio particles, therefore, represent information carriers smaller than a meme, of sentient or inanimate origin, regardless of their capacity to be copied or self replicate (though note that units of inanimate origin have their meaning projected upon them by yet to be understood biological processes). And however minute these structures they may be, they nevertheless present us with a valuable area for analysis, if our goal is the creation of content, such as sonic branding, for instance, which is intended to scan along a 'multi dimensional', multi platform, mixed media matrix.

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Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara