Re: Review of "The Selfish Meme" part II (3)

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Tue 05 Jul 2005 - 19:03:41 GMT

  • Next message: Kenneth Van Oost: "Re: Review of The Selfish Meme"

    Bill Spight wrote:
    > Dear Kate,
    >> The score doesn't tell you how to play the piano, but if you can
    >> already play the piano then it tells you all you need to know about
    >> the music - unlike the recording, from which you can infer only
    >> incomplete and sometimes incorrect information about the music.
    > As a semi-professional musician, I must demur. All of the information in
    > the score is in the recording, and more. A score must be interpreted,
    > which involves inference.

    But there's a crucial difference between "interpreting" the score (the information's all there, and you're just deciding what to do with it), and the interpretation/inference that's needed to work out what notes you're hearing when you listen to a performance.

    For example, if you listened to the famous opening passages of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata without ever having seen the score, then you'd be forgiven for assuming that it's written in 6/8 time, and what you're hearing is a series of quavers. You couldn't make that mistake if you saw the time signature (4/4) at the beginning of the score, and the triplets written out in front of you. Or, if you don't have perfect pitch and you tried to play for yourself a tune you'd heard earlier, then you might well give a pretty good rendition of it, but unknowingly transpose it to a different key. You wouldn't do that if you had the score in front of you, because the information is provided by the score in a way that it isn't by the performance.

    This is what I meant by inferring incomplete and sometimes incorrect information from a performance.

    > If you regard music as some ideal in the mind
    > of the composer (not my view), then consider what Milton Babbitt said
    > about why he turned to electronic music: Electronic music gave him the
    > control he needed so that he could actually hear his music just like he
    > heard it in his head. (I can sympathize, having once written a short
    > string quartet I could not get anyone even to attempt, not because it
    > was technically difficult, but because it was too unfamiliar.) Babbitt's
    > tapes were better representations of what he imagined than scores would
    > have been.
    > Have you ever seen scores of traditional folk songs? The ones I have
    > seen have been inadequate. You really want the recordings. Such songs
    > have been passed down for centuries without the aid of scores. Do you
    > think that there was nothing memetic about that transmission?
    > Best regards,
    > Bill

    Folk music is a great example that's set me thinking quite a lot about this. Here's my take on it. First, the oral tradition has of course been crucial to folk music - and it's a tradition that never fails to astonish me with its power and compass. But it is nonetheless a less faithful means of preserving information than the written tradition: some media just are better at avoiding copying errors than others, and indeed I don't think it's too controversial to say that's probably the ultimate reason for the evolution of writing. People think I'm pretty good at remembering their birthdays. I'm not, but my diary is.

    The words of folk songs I therefore see as no different from the words of folk tales or any other cultural information that has been preserved by oral traditions down the centuries. There is a memetic process going on there, although often involving a bit more mutation than written traditionsl might average.

    But I'd still say that when you learn a new tune by imitation (to go with the words of the song) this involves a process of inference not one of directly receiving any new information. Here's why. Words are representations of information. They represent the things in the world that their definitions encompass: the word "dog" represents a certain type of animal. BUT the animal itself does not represent anything. It just is. Musical scores also represent information. They represent the tunes, as dictated by the conventions of musical notation. BUT those tunes themselves do not represent anything. They just are. If you write down the note "Middle C" on a stave then it represents a certain note. If you sing or play that note then what you hear is the note itself, not a representation of it.

    Phew. Rather garrulous this evening. Look forward to your reply!


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