Metaphor, Memes and the Cartesian Music-Hall


Briefly, this is a chapter in a larger work in progress, and it is inevitably a work in progress itself. It develops themes I originally investigated in Metaform and Metaforming, itself the result of investigations into composition via music technology in general and computer software in particular. Not entirely unsurprisingly, this in itself led to many different areas and approaches, including consciousness, perception and ultimately evolution in search of 'firm' explanations for musical activity. In a way that in itself seems too self-referential, one of the principal ideas that has emerged in these areas over the last thirty or forty years, largely I believe due to the emergence of computing as one of the most important human achievements, has been the role of metaphor.

A further key notion behind these ideas is the difference between musical justification and explanation. If I like a piece and seek to understand why I like it I might seek to explain reasons why it has the effect it does. If I have written a piece that I like, or I am defending the value of a piece I like to someone who does not share my opinion I would seek to justify my reasons for liking it. This is I think a crucial and sometimes overlooked distinction.

Why look at such obscure, apparently non-musical issues as metaphor, memes and Descartes? Almost by definition, I don't think they are non-musical, or at least I think they have fundamental things to say about our understanding of music. Also, I do not believe that music is somehow different from any other subject that deals with perception. Our understanding of many parts of human perception has changed radically since the second world war, mainly through developments in technology. The discovery of DNA in 1953 and the continuing development of computer systems are two of the most important factors, but by no means the only ones. Ironically, much of the 'progress' has been negative - the singular failure of computer scientists to produce anything remotely resembling artificial intelligence (compare Arthur C Clarke's predictions for Hal in 2001: A Space Oddysey - that's this year!) - have put into perspective many previous ideas of perception, notably that of Descartes. What were considered to be relatively straightforward human (or animal) motions have proved notoriously difficult to recreate, leading to much speculation concerning the wondrous complexity of the world and its creatures.


When most of us think of metaphor, or its cousin analogy, we think of language and literature. Somthing is like something else, or in describing one thing we shed light on another. Kafka's Metamorphosis is both a tale and an allegory; has Gregor Samsa really turned into a beetle, or does he just imagine it? More importantly, what do we have to understand about literature, stories, Kafka, reality or infirmity to understand the significance of the tale. Children's stories are full of people and things changing quite dramatically, and yet we do not usually look for dark meanings in these. Why do think that it is unlikely that Gregor Samsa would turn into a beetle. Even if we did, why should we think so if we're reading a fiction? Why should it conform to what we know of reality, at least in terms of turning into beetle's is concerned? As we shall see, the key point seems to be none of these specific problems. The key point is whether we are able to associate ideas across these actually widely differing areas - reality (people don't really turn into beetles overnight), infirmity (people often do find various forms of disease and disability unpleasant and disturbing), literature (books are not real, but they can gain something from their proximity to reality), and on and on. If we understand more of these facets well then we will generally understand and appreciate the work more and vice versa.

How can metaphor happen in music? Can it happen at all? Are the imitations of nature in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony a form of metaphor, or analogy? They certainly take an idea, like that of the sound of a Cuckoo's song, and reinterpret it in different environment. What is achieved by this? Presumably some evocation of a mood, an idea, a scene. Is this just imitation, or could it be described as metaphor? Whatever word we choose to describe it, it is clearly the transposition of one form of material into another. Information is mapped in this case from a naturally occuring sound to a highly formalised musical idiom. In the case of the Beethoven, and of many other examples of pre-twentieth century western art music, the mapping is apparently quite straightforward. However, the situation becomes a little more complex when compared to Messiaen's use of birdsong and other natural phenomena in Catalogue D'Oiseaux. In one sense these are less complex uses of metaphor or analogy than the Beethoven. According to Messiaen, he literally pictures whole scenes, environments, times of day in music before placing his 'birds' amongst them. The aesthetic implication is that by this sort of very direct 'mapping', Messiaen is justified perhaps on religious grounds, because he is recreating God's creation. In some senses this is similar to Birtwistle's implied evocations of random movement and texture when he compares a musical texture to the falling leaves in autumn or the casting of stones onto a texture - he controls which stones are used, the texture onto which they fall, the number of stones, even the force with which they are thrown; he does not, however, directly control where the stones will eventually lie. There is clearly a sense of attempted justification in Birtwistle's explanation of his method (which he attempts through metaphor, incidentally). He is making the point that no musical event can be completely controlled on all levels.

Richard Dawkins makes much of the metaphor. His books are full of self-confessed metaphors, used to explain usually scientific ideas. Interestingly, he is alos extremely wary of these metaphors, being very careful to specify at which point a particular metaphor 'breaks down' in the face of reality. This also makes the idea of the 'meme' more interesting as I will discuss below.

Quote from The Digital River
The Digital River
Dawkins uses the metaphor of genes swimming in a digital river to describe selection and evolution. Genes in different branches (different species) don't mix. Genes confined between the same river banks mix and combine in individuals of a given species.

"...the genes that survive in the river will be the ones that are good at surviving in the average environment of the species, and perhaps the most important aspect of this average environment is the other genes of the species; the other genes with which a gene is likely to have to share a body..."

Why, in this case, use a metaphor which provides a potentially misleading interpretation? Presumably because, through experience, Dawkins has apprehended that more people, perhaps with less technical knowledge, would appreciate more of the material. Otherwise, why not simply 'tell it how it is'? Of course, very few people would write books like this, because purely technical data is not very interesting as a book rather than as a reference work, for instance, where the emphasis is on speed, ease of access and clarity rather than entertaining reading.

Is there also an extent to which the use of the breakdown of a metaphor, such as the one quoted above, serves to emphasise certain aspects of reality? In the Kafka, of course, the metaphor breaks down almost immediately, because we know the story is not really true. And yet equally we know this does not matter.

The Ambiguity of Metaphor

One of the key components of metaphor, then, is ironically its ambiguity. In the 'scientific' Dawkins example, we know that the passage of genes through time is not really a river; we know this is the use of one literal form in place of another - the much more 'complex' and difficult to grasp idea of genes physically passing between bodies. However, by introducing a literal untruth into the argument (it's like a river), we may come nearer to understanding the reality.

Both Steven Mithen and Richard Dawkins have clearly stated views on the importance of metaphor, which I expanded on in Metaform and Metaforming. Mithen links the human ability to use metaphor imaginatively with the earliest developments of the human race - literally, the factor that separated early species of man. He sites archeological evidence indicating that settlements of early species of Homo Sapiens Sapiens were arranged in communal and structured ways. Different groups of people would cooperate in activities involving different areas of knowledge and understanding, rather than remaining isolated and individual, as indicated by remains of Neanderthal settlements. His clear conclusion is that it is this ability to break through the otherwise impenetrable barriers separating different forms of knowledge - social knowledge, technical knowledge, natural knowledge, etc., that is at the root of our advanced ability. Dawkins is more hawkish still, suggesting perhaps preemptively that the rise of the computer is directly related to its metaphorical similarity to many aspects of human physiology.

To return to the Messiaen, is his use of such direct 'imitation' as simple and direct as it might first appear. It most certainly would not to anyone not well-versed in the ways of western art music. In .... Messiaen begins by 'describing' the rocky environment. He does this by using highly dissonant, non-tonal and a rhythmically metric texture. It certainly sounds to me as if it's not a million miles away from being 'rocky'. And yet in reality this is precisely what it is. How can one 'justify' the use of a piano, playing music in the above manner as 'sounding like' or even evoking rock? At the very least there is the minor problem that in reality rock does not make any sound! It is clear to me that in order to appreciate Messiaen's evocation we must understand many assumptions about musical styles, ideas and aesthetics. Most notably, we have to understand that the idea of using particular instruments to evoke or imitate other instruments or sounds has a well-established and even revered tradition in western art music. More generally, it is called using 'texture' or even 'orchestration', if only for just one instrument. If one can evoke rock on a piano, what cannot one do? This is a form of justification. And if we accept that appreciating Messiaen's rocks involves an understanding of assumptions, how different is it, or any so-called 'program music' from 'abstract' music. Or is there a difference between Messiaen's 'hyper-programmed' music (it's six in the morning, we're in Mexico, there's a river over there, the sky's blue...) and the disparaged narrational program music of....

As an aside at this stage, I think it is worth while thinking about the above understanding of 'program music'.

  • Program music
  • Messiaen
  • Birtwistle
  • Mathematics
  • Abstract Forms
Where do we draw the line?

From the perspective of literary metaphor as discussed in terms of the Dawkins and the Mithen, the Messiaen looks slightly different. One could argue that being so 'thoroughly' programmatic actually makes the music less ambiguous, and therefore make the 'metaphorical' content less complex. In one way, this makes perfect sense. If the music can be likened to a 'photograph' of nature, then there is clearly an attempt to make it 'closer to reality', in other words, more like a 'technical' manual (and indeed the use of the term 'catalogue' emphasises this aspect). What then, of more abstract musics?

Metaphor and Abstract Music

One of the keenest arguments is that regarding the 'lingual' nature of music. Many linguists and a few musicologists argue that music is related to language. Many other musicians strongly contest this view, maintaining that abstraction is a more pure form and superior in most respects. I myself encourage students to avoid the use of 'narrative' in composition, although I do encourage composers to 'abstract' ideas inspired directly by moods, feelings, paintings or any other extra-musical idea.

Rather like Dawkins use of metaphor above to describe genetic passage, I feel that any use of language to discuss music itself has to be metaphorical. The key area is, as described above, with how closely one can get through language to the reality of the event. Clearly, with any piece of music, I could describe in words any event relatively precisely, and the greater my understanding of the music, the more precise my description would be. Eventually, of course, an understanding of genetic passage depends on an understanding of the technical aspects of the subject as well as a feeling for the reality of its implications. In music, clearly the only 'real' reality is that which we experience when experiencing the music itself. Any written material 'describing' it is bound to fail in this way.

However, this is not what is being attempted. Much analysis is either justification or explanation as outlined above.


The concept of the Meme was introduced in Richard Dawkins' 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He describes it there as:

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun whic 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 abreviate 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 propogate 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.'

I would have thought that quite a significant number of people would have, by now, heard of and understood Dawkins' concept, proving at least a part of the theory. What is fascinating to me, though, is the introduction of such a completely new way of looking at the musical idea. As N.K.Humphrey proposes in the above quotation, memes should be regarded as technically living subjects. This introduces the fascinating idea of the boundary between description as metaphor and as a technical description. We are usually quite clear about the distinction between these ideas, but here we have that unique point where what can easily be understood as a metaphor demands to be understood as a description of reality.

I would imagine that one of the most disturbing ramifications of meme theory is its effect on the idea of academic argument itself, or even the use of the valuation of academic ideas. If meme theory is correct, the survival or extinction of an idea depends on its ability to infect others. Just as in evolution itself, this does not necessarily mean that those creatures which we might like or consider to have inherent value are going to survive. Indeed, nor does it mean that those ideas which are 'best' (whatever that means) will survive. As we are aware, the easiest way to propagate ideas is to take the most commonly accepted, no matter how erroneous we feel they are and communicate them to others.

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 which the larvae 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 confusions that surround the idea of a self. Human consciousness is to a very great 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 flourish that are good at...replicating! - for whatever reason...

The important point is that there is no necessary connection between a meme's replicative power, its 'fitness' from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness (by whatever standard we judge that).
Dennett, 1991, p202

Of course, just as in the natural world, there would be different memes with different purposes and not all memes will be competing over the same resources.

It is this boundary between our descriptions of reality and their relationship to metaphor that has become increasingly important to scientists and especially those psychologists involved in the understanding of consciousness. Moreover, the fact that we use so many metaphors in order to help us understand and appreciate complex and difficult ideas, and the theory that, as Steven Mithen has proposed in The Prehistory of Mind that may suggest that it is in our nature, indeed, it is indivisibly linked into who we are as creatures, that our thought patterns involve linking diverse areas and gaining advantage from these links. In this sense, our very idea of metaphor may be intimately linked with the way in which we perceive the world. Daniel Dennett has proposed that this is indeed the case. In his book Consciousness Explained he proposes that our consciousness is organised in a deliberately 'self-deceptive' way (if you'll excuse the apparent contradiction in terms). He sites the most common example of this self-deception is the concept of the Cartesian Theatre - the idea that there is 'someone' experiencing our experiences and coordinating that experience into a single integrated whole.

The Cartesian Music Hall

Dennett's damning criticism of the Cartesian Theatre theory of the mind has many deeply uncomfortable ramifications if true, and he presents many powerful arguments in support of this theory. Instead he proposes what he calls the 'many drafts' theory, where consciousness and perception are achieved in a multi-facetted way - he compares our perception of a visual event to the display of a graphic on a computer monitor. The link between the 'real' image and the image that appears on the screen is not a direct one - the image on the screen is a 'logical' representation of data within the computer. Indeed, if the image is 'imagined' in the sense that the computer is responsible for its creation, then this merely emphasises the difference between 'real' space and 'logical' space. Another (and non-computerised) example is the imagining of a 'purple cow', which I suspect that most of us would be able to do. And yet there is nowhere in the brain where the 'idea' of 'purple' can possibly be kept, and we must therefore be using 'logical' information rather than 'the real thing'.

Evolution has formed us to believe that our perceptions are real and single. Our evolutionary heritage has formed us to accept many aspects of things that are far from necessarily true. [cf Penrose Shadows of the Mind.] Our direct perceptions of things are not reliable and nor are they 'intended' to be. They are ambiguous and, to some extent, metaphorical. Our perception of certain bandwidths of radiation - those which we call 'light' are unique and arbitrary, if that word has any meaning in this context. Our perception of certain bandwidths of frequency is similarly limited. Metaphor enables us to see things 'from different angles', and so to enhance our understanding of any particular thing.

One of the main manifestations of this ambiguity in perception is the 'tempting' nature of the Cartesian Theatre. We are seeminngly programmed to think about ourselves and how we think and perceive in this way. One of Dennett's principal arguments is that this is the result of evolution and that it is the way we are 'supposed' to think.

Dennett himself struggles to 'see' through the difficulties of this situation. He is ever alert to 'Cartesian' infiltration - often our very language is imbued with Cartesian influences.

Talking to oneself and singing to oneself....?!
Dennett, 1991, p195

Encephalitic and Cultural Explosions

This increase in volume didn't happen immediately; for several million years after the split with proto-chimpanzees, our hominid ancestors got along with ape-sized brains, in spite of becoming bipedal at least three and a half million years ago. Then, when the ice ages began, about two and a half million years ago the Great Encephalization commenced, and was essentially completed 150,000 years ago - before the development of language, of cooking, of architecture. Just why our ancestors' brains should have grown so large so fast (in the evolutionary time scale it was more an explosion than a blossoming) is a matter of some controversy...But there is little controversy aout the nature of the product: the brain of early Homo sapiens (who lived from roughly 150,000 years ago to the end of the most recent ice ate a mnere 10000 years ago) was an enormously complex brain of unrivaled plasticity, almost indistinguishable form our own in size and shape. This is important: the astonishing hominid brain growth was essentialy complete before the development of language, and so cannot be a response to the complexities of mind that language has made possible. The innate specializations for language, hypothesized by the linguist Noam Chomsky and others and now beginning to be confirmed in details of neuroanatomy, are a very recent and rushed add-on, no doubt an exploitation of earlier sequencing circuitry....Moreover, the most remarkable expansion of human mental powers (as witnessed by the development of cooking, agriculture, art and, in a word, civiliation) has all happened even more recently, since te end of the last ice age, in a 10,000-year twinkling that is as good as instantaneous from the evolutionary perspective at measures trends in millions of years. So the tremendous advance of Homo Sapiens in the last 10,000 years must almost all be due to harnessing the plasticity of that brain in radially new ways - by creating something like software to enhane its underlying powers.
Dennett, 1991


Awaiting material.

  • The influence of technology in pointing out difficulties with classical theories and common sense;
  • The way in which developments in evolutionary theory have forced us to at least reconsider ideas which seem quite clear and obvious.
  • The way in which things have meaning. The way in which things are much more structured than we might think. The way in which things that we consider initially to be random and meaningless are far from that.
  • While the investigation of the idea of metaphor and memes is interesting, except as assumptions, they have no experimental value.

Richard Hoadley, June 2000