Re: The Musical Meme

Bill Benzon (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 10:25:06 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 14 Jun 1997 10:25:06 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: The Musical Meme

John Cortmaier says:

>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.

Well... What I'm thinking is about intellectual responsibility and academic
turf. Is I understanding it, evolutionary biology is about the relationship
between genotypes, phenotypes, and niches. Now in order for there to be any
phenotype at all the genes have "enter into" a developmental process. The
study of that developmental processes is a different discipline.
Evolutionary biologists need to know something about that, but they pretty
much have to leave most of the details & theorizing to other folks.
Similarly, a different bunch of folks are responsible for figuring out how
organisms get energy and nutrients from the environment, etc etc etc

Culture is like that too. Someone is responsible for figuring out just how
Beethoven took a simple drinking song and turned it into the last movement
of his 9th symphony. But that someone is probably not a memeticist. The
same goes for that famous riff which opens Beethoven's 5th. If this were
an ideal world we could send a definition of the meme (perhaps Aaron
Lynch's definition) to musicologists and theorists and ask them to map that
definition onto their analytic vocabulary and, in addition, to give us a
list of the memes in classical music.

This isn't that ideal world so I'm not holding my breath. But I don't have
any intention of learning music theory and, quite possibly, recasting it in
more appropriate terms, just so I can talk about the evolution (as opposed
to the history) of music. But what do I have to do so that talk about
music evolution really is talk about evolution and not just talk about
history using a different vocabulary? Just what is the difference between
thinking about a sequence of cultural phenomena in historical terms vs.
evolutionary terms?

The answer to that question is not at all clear to me. But evolutionary
thinking involves a certain kind of causal relations between replicators,
interactors, and an environment. Historians don't use that kind of causal

>Someone else to consider is Bach and his fugues (my own personal favorite in
>"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.

Well, following John Wilkins, I'd say that a Bach theme is a meme if it has
substantive cultural existence outside of the role it plays in Bach's
composition. Otherwise it's just a building block in one of Bach's

And, having brought Wilkins up, my mind just flashed on his comment about
evolutionary scale and rate. Let's say, for example, that we really do
want to think of a musical composition or performance as itself an
evolutionary process. That is, we get from the beginning to the end through
evolution -- the sort of thing you imply here:

>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).

The rate is on the order of seconds and minutes and the scale is that of a
human brain, performer, composer, listener. What is it that is evolving --
some pattern of neural activity. What things are competing & what
resources are they competing for? Well, one can certainly find neural net
models which involve cooperation and competition between neurons. One
might think of information patterns competing with one another for neural
resources. What is a generation? An alpha cycle, a heart beat? Beats me.

In classical music I can halfway imagine composing as being an evolutionary
process while performing and listening are not. But what do you do about
Mozart, who is said to have been able to compose at the rate he could
write? Well, one could point out that writing music is still slower than
playing it. To which one could respond that Mozart was also one hell of an

My impression is that Edelman's neural darwinism is about how a pile of
neurons acquires a repertoire of patterns it can recognize. Does anyone
know if anyone's thinking of things like talking or playing music or
basketball as evolutionary processes?

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)