Music Memes: The Human Imperative

10 Jul

Music exists to be passed on, to share stories, feelings and traditions. Sharing music is cross cultural, and, as I will argue, a human imperative. Music is a crucial part of cultural development. Musicians serve diverse functions within the community; whether as religious organizers, entertainers, storytellers and even scientists, a musician’s job is to engage the community in the culture. They are seldom separate or distinct, but usually a embodiment or representation of the community itself, helping to demystify the struggles of daily life whilst adding a sacred and mysterious element to the society.

The wonder of organized sound serves as a call for humans to unite and share in an experience that can be both collective and individual. Music allows us to rejoice, to mourn, and to remember. It is a common thread that ties us to our traditions and pushes us forward into new expression. For thousands of years, as music has been passed down, it has developed and evolved. Building upon what came before is the mechanism by which music progresses and grows. We can better understand why sharing is imperative and why music will always remain an open creative process by analyzing the history of music.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his breakthrough work the Selfish Gene, coined the term ‘meme’ to describe a phenomenon that was uniquely human. “Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: culture”. The book focuses on evolution and biology, introducing  Dawkins’ gene-centered evolutionary perspective. All living organisms are survival machines “blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. He proposes that the laws of evolution apply to more processes than just the biological.

“For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old”.

Meme is derived from the Greek word Mimeme ‘to imitate’. Imitation is the way memes evolve and replicate. Dawkins argues that cultural transmission is not different from genetic transmission. Cultural sharing and passing down are analogous to genetic evolution. Memes can be “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation”.

Dawkins outlines three laws of memetic survival. These laws are basic principles that determine whether a meme will replicate or die out. The laws mirror natural selection, the process which dictates which genes will be successful. The laws are longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. 1

Millions of music memes live in the proverbial meme pool because, for most of history, music has been central to religious and societal practices. Religious ceremonies, dancers, actors, entertainers, storytellers and poets have always, incorporated music as a part of daily life. Song and verse were the original forms of passing down culture well before the developments of the written word, television, vinyl, compact disk, Mp3s, or the Internet. Communities have always been enriched by the presence of artists. Religious customs, laws, familial history, everything down to details of mundane daily life were passed on through generations in song and verse.

Music seems to be innate in humans, as an essential property of the human spirit. It is described and illuminated by scientists and researchers, such as Daniel Levitan, and Oliver Sachs, a leading neurologist and author investigating traumatic brain injuries. Levitan researches how neural pathways can be re-routed successfully utilizing music as a stimulus. Sachs describes how music remains at the core of the human mind, even when when the brain is damaged or disintegrating. Even though music manifests itself very differently, depending on its specific cultural origin the quality of the sounds can be dramatically different; people always make music and it is always passed down and shared.

The dialectical evolution of music seems to be innate, an underlying principal of musical progress. It follows the sociology of our society and is part of the process of memetic evolution. It is the synthesis or result of tension between divergent agendas. One side may eventually prevail by a process of evolution, but it does not negate the value of the discussion. Dialectical conflict as pertaining to music is essential to understanding how music evolves. The importance of discussing this argument within the historical context is to prove its organic existence. Memes propagating, imitating, iterating, and developing in the meme pool are the processes of musical evolution.

Doing innovative things in new ways, disrupting the established system, and being at the forefront of technological progress constitutes the musical imperative. Music demands innovation, it is fundamentally Open Source. Music needs the community to imitate, iterate, contribute and improve.

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  1. Longevity is the lifespan of a single meme within individual memory, whether it is in an individual’s mind, a single sheet of paper or computer memory. The meme itself cannot continue to exist if it does not integrate within a cultural framework. Any song, fashion or idea, on its own, is only as good as its popularity. It is how it formulates and integrates, develops and evolves, that contributes to the success of the meme.

    The importance lies not in the “individual” but in the in the ability of the meme, whether it is a melody, an idea, or any other singular unit to merge and scaffold, creating replications to be passed on through time.

    Fecundity is descriptive of a meme’s implantation, replication and evolution. It is a measure of memetic integration into a culture. Dawkins gives examples to gauge a meme’s success at cultural integration. “If it is a popular tune, its spread through the meme pool may be gauged by the number of people heard whistling it in the streets”. In a digitally integrated society the street may be defined as any digital communication.

    He defines two distinct types of fecundity: short term success and long term success. Most popular music is extremely well known in its era, but is quickly forgotten as time passes. These memes spread rapidly and then quickly die off. However, certain musical works, including some popular music, are long term successes, destined to be remembered for generations.”

    The last law of memetic survival is Copying-Fidelity. This law helps to understand what exactly constitutes a meme, and conveniently for this discussion, Dawkins uses the example of music. “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?”. He writes that a meme is not meant as an exact measurement, but rather as a ‘unit of convenience’. A meme can be anything with enough copying-fidelity to serve as an independent replicable unit. A symphony is made up of many memes and can possibly be a meme itself. Each chord is a meme because chords are fundamental aspects of organized sound. Each bar could be a meme, but for most symphonies, individual bars of music do not have much cultural impact. A recognizable phrase or melody is most likely a meme. When we recognize a popular piece of music, it has survived and reproduced within our culture.