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Music and Memes

Seminar ListAbstract • PreparationMain Text


"The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory' or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.
"Examples of memes are 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. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K.Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: '...memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking - the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over."

Richard Dawkins 1976

Although somewhat controversial, memes are generally accepted as a reasonable description of one way in which ideas permeate society.

The controversy surrounds how literally to take the idea. Views range from Dennett (1995) who believes that memes probably act in a strictly Darwinian sense and control all aspects of our thought processes (as he believes Darwinian processes control all of out physical and psychological processes, through more general and ambivalent ideas (such as those of Richard Dawkins himself, who feel that memes present a decent, if metaphorical way of describing the way that memes behave, to outright hostility. After all, as Dennett has pointed out,

This is a new way of thinking about ideas. It is also, I hope to show, a good way, but at the outset the perspecitve it provides is deistinctly unsettling, even appalling. We can sum it up with a slogan:
A scholar is just a library's way of making another library I don't know about you, but I'm not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dung heap in whih th elarvae of other people's ides renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who's in charge, according to this vision - we or our memes?
There is, of course, no simple answer, and this fact is at the heart of the conrusions that surround the idea of a self. Human consciousness is to a very grat degree a product not just of natural selection, but of cultural evolution as well.... The first rule of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flouris that are good at...replicating! - for whatever reason... The important point is that there is no necessary connetion between a meme's replicative power, its'fitness' form its point of view, and its contribution to our finness (by whatever standard we judge that).

Dennett, 1991, p202


Read the relevant parts of Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Think of different ways in which memes might affect your appreciation of music and consider the following questions:

If music is made of memes, can you think of some good examples? What about popular classics - songs or melodies that are accepted as public property and commonly sung by a wide variety of performers? Maybe compositions or songs that you know, but are do not know who wrote them. Think of some of these. Try to come up with a number of songs that have been performed, maybe very differently, a number of times.

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