Re: The Musical Meme

Jon Cortmaior (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:01:10 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:01:10 -0400 (EDT)
From: Jon Cortmaior <>
Subject: Re: The Musical Meme
In-Reply-To: <>

On Thu, 12 Jun 1997, Bill Benzon wrote:

> Tim Perper notes:
> a bunch of stuff about memes and music. (all very interesting)
.....but...since I don't have the time or the current inclination to respond
to it point by point...I'm cutting it all out...leaving more room for my own
thoughts on the matter :)
One thing that occurs to me is that the part of a piece of music that is
the "meme" is the part that gets "replicated", the part we remember.
The more insidious ones are the little tunes we find ourselves whistling
despite the fact that we don't particularly _like_ them. I, for instance,
will find myself whistling or humming the oddest things as I go about my work,
the Smurfs theme (meme?), It's a Small World, Jingle Bells, or some damn song
by the Spice Girls I was unlucky enough to hear a piece of. I've caught myself
humming/whistling all of these, and I like NONE of them. I hate the smurfs,
disney, and I absolultely abhor the Spice Girls (sorry fans, and for those of
you who might not know, they're currently..and have been for the past 4 weeks
number one on the Billboard Pop charts).
So, as I understand the "definition" of a meme, these little bits that I
whistle unconsciously (or otherwise) which have managed to replicate themselves
in my poor head, are the memes.
But, these are simple tunes, with simple themes, and for that reason, it might
do to start off with those when considering the relationship between memes
and music. No point, in my view, in jumping into a confused memetic analysis
of Bethoven's Ninth with what little understanding we currently have.
Bethoven's 5th, on the other hand, has a very obvious little "riff",
ta da da dum..and through out the first movement at least, the relationship
to all the other parts with the main theme is obvious. So I would guess that
that is the meme for B's 5th. It's still present in the other movement in
some shape or form, either rythmically, harmonically, or melodically, but
rarely all three at once...the other movement require that you actually pay
attention to see the relationship....
Someone else to consider is Bach and his fugues (my own personal favorite in the
"classical" genre). It's very clear that all of his fugues are based on a very
short theme (again, meme?) which he varies this way and that to make a whole
piece...he did so darn many of them that his work are the most cited examples
of the form.
Then we have "rock" music, which is filled with little riffs, ie. Smoke on the
Water, Stairway to Heaven, Pink Floyd's "Money" and "Another Brick on the Wall",
lots and lots of others, but I don't much listen to classic rock anymore, so I
have forgotten them. Most rock music is stupidly simple, and easy to remember,
which may well be why people like it so much...they can remember it..and it
provides a convenient way to transmit _other_ ideas...namely the lyrics...
which used to have (in the good ole days) an actual message behind them...
(I do not mean the comment about rocks simplicity to be deragatory, by the
way, it's just that compared to other forms it's just NOT all that complex
most of the time...unless, of course, you listen to RUSH...but then how many
Rush songs can you just hum? )
And, in the interest of being difficult, I feel impelled to mention other
genres,namely the more moderns ones that I happen to listen to: ambient techno,
and industrial.
Ambient (and ambient techno), and industrial are far more abstract, for the most
part than any other form of music. Ambient's whole purpose is to provide the
listener with an "ambience", a certain sense of space or to convey a particular
emotion, most often with no words whatsoever. Some ambient is very good at
it's job. Certain pieces are almost guaranteed to put me in a better mood, and
not just because I like them. One that comes to mind is William Orbits
"Water from a Vine Leaf". It's a beautiful piece. And if you let it engulf
you (headphones and no other noise), it totally changes your current perception
of the world around you. I make other people listen to it, just to see their
reaction, and the reactions have thus far been unanimous..."This is really
great, I love it"... regardless of the fact that some of these people _really_
hate techno. It's the piece I use to convince people that techno _isnt_ evil.

I'm starting to ramble, and I have work to do, so I'm gonna wrap it up now...
(I don't have the energy right now to go into my "analysis" of industrial music
so I sorry I brought it up, whoops)

I think that to decide where the meme lies in a piece of music, you have to
consider each genre (at least, if not every piece) separately.
But, to generalize: Much classical, for instance, is theme have
a relatively short theme that is expanded upon, contorted this way and that
and each expression of it is a "mutation" of the original theme (meme).
(particularly in "classic" classical - Bethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. I don't
even want to go near Romantic era composers)
Rock, on the other hand tends to have a single musical theme...maybe a couple..
verse and chorus, which is more of a vehicle for the memes in the lyrics than
a meme in and of itself (an enabler meme? a sybiotic piece of a meme-complex
Other Ambient (plain and techno varieties) seem to me to be
singular memes. For an ambient piece to do it's really do need the
whole thing...that's really hard...really hard to just "hum" an ambient
tune... But then, that "singular" meme might just be an incredibly
elaborate, and interlaced meme-complex...
perhaps I'll elaborate on my ideas of this more, when I am less busy and if
people actually seem interested :)

Oh, the one _other_ thing that occurs to me is this: this is one the reasons
I quit watching TV altogether, and rarely listen to the radio...besides being
a computer geek, in insane amount of my brain is devoted to music. I do not
leave the house without my Discman and about 35 different CDs. period.
I play piano, guitar, flute, and whatever else I can get my hands on. So,
a lot of the wiring in my head is geared towards the acceptance and
incorporation of musical memes...and my thoughts are thus: because so much
of my brain is wired for music, how succeptible am I to musically transmitted
memes? In particular, memes that I don't agree with. I don't watch TV because
I will invariably find myself humming the theme to whatever I've recently seen.
That's also why I carry my music with me that I can get those
darn tunes out of my head by listening to something mother on the
other hand is tone-stupid (not tone deaf..she tell the difference between
tones)...she can't remember a tune to save her my guess is that only
the most potent of musical memes would get to her at all....

la la la la la la, la la la la la

If you could figure out the tune for that, then you too were infected by the
insidious smurf song meme. :)
Jonathon Cortmaior
I wasn't born with enough middle fingers. --Marilyn Manson

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