Proceedings paper


The Memetics of Music and

Its Implications for Psychology


Steven Jan

School of Academic Studies, Royal Northern College of Music, 124 Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9RD, United Kingdom.



  1. Introduction: Universal Darwinism and The Memetic Paradigm
  2. In recent years Richard Dawkins has written some splendid things about universal Darwinism. But his message has been the more restricted one that wherever in the universe life has evolved, it has done so by the processes of Darwinian addition to biological evolution as it is normally understood, Darwinian evolution is also operating to produce the transformations in time that we see in certain other spheres, such as immune system function and even the way science itself [as a component of culture generally] operates.

    (Plotkin 1995: xvii)

    At its most radical, the principle of universal Darwinism maintains that some of the most remarkable and powerful things in the universe are a class of entities Dawkins calls replicators, which he defines as "...anything in the universe of which copies are made. Examples are a DNA molecule, and a sheet of paper that is xeroxed" (1983: 83). These, he contends, are the fundamental units of selection in a universe-wide process of Darwinian evolution. A class of such entities is the meme, the subject of the present paper, defined by Dawkins as a "...unit of cultural transmission...a unit of imitation" (1989: 192).

    As a means of understanding the nature of culture, the memetic paradigm has received increasingly serious attention in recent years, despite attempts from its inception to downgrade it to the status of a "meaningless metaphor" (Stephen Jay Gould, in Blackmore 1999: 17). From the ranks of its advocates, Derek Gatherer has warned of the danger of memetics' becoming "...merely a meta-narrative having no more right to call itself scientific than dialectics..." (1997: 83). Despite vocal criticism, increasingly serious attention has been paid to the theory, culminating in three recent book-length studies (Brodie 1996, Lynch 1996, Blackmore 1999), and the inception, in 1997, of a dedicated, online Journal of Memetics.

    If one accepts the validity of the memetic paradigm-that human culture is an ecology of independent particulate entities which optimize their chances of survival to the degree that they maximize their tendency to imitation-then it is reasonable to attempt to apply it to music. After all, music is a stream of sound information which, in its generation and perception, is segmented into discrete, particulate units. Moreover, a memetic perspective on music would draw heavily upon psychology, for our innate perceptual and cognitive competencies are part of the long-term environment of the meme, and our neural structures their fundamental physical incarnation.

    While constraints of space prevent a detailed exposition of what a memetics of music might constitute, I hope to provide here an outline of its main premises, with reference to some of the principal concerns of music psychology. In particular, I shall consider how our innate perceptual and cognitive attributes affect the meme, and how hierarchical aspects of musical structure and perception relate to the claims of memetics.

  3. The Ontology of The Meme
  4. Memetics distinguishes between the physical manifestations of the meme and the psychological, and ultimately neurological, structures from which these arise. Adapting the dualism from biology, the phemotype (from the biological phenotype) is the term applied to the behaviours generated by a meme, and the extrasomatic artefacts these behaviours give rise to; and the memotype (from the biological genotype) refers to the somatic psychological and neural structures which engender the phemotype (Blackmore 1999: 63-66). At times in this paper I will discuss memes in terms of their phemotypes, namely the printed score and its resultant sound image; elsewhere, however, when discussing the mental representation of memes, issues of memotypic organization will prevail.

  5. Memetic Segmentation and Coequality
  6. The verification of a musical particle as memetic requires it to be matched against an analogous, coequal unit in a different context. This process is also one of segmentation, for it results in the division of the music into discrete units each with a clear initial and terminal pitch. Such units generally accord with our natural perceptual and cognitive articulation of the sound stream.

    1. Gestalt/Implication-Realization Segmentation

As an element of the act of cognition, we subject music to the operation of segmentation, dividing the stream of sound information into discrete units in order to facilitate processing. Our perceptual and cognitive faculties are attuned to obvious points of articulation, such as pauses, cadences, and changes in material. More fundamentally, however, our comprehension of patterning is controlled by attributes identified by the Gestalt tradition of psychology. Deutsch observes that

...we group elements into configurations on the basis of various simple rules.... One is proximity: closer elements are grouped together in preference to those that are spaced further apart.... Another is similarity.... A third, good continuation, states that elements that follow each other in a given direction are perceptually linked together.... A fourth, common fate, states that elements that change in the same way are perceptually linked together. As a fifth principle, we tend to form groupings so as to perceive configurations that are familiar to us.

(1999: 300)

Perhaps the most thorough application of such pattern-perception principles to musical analysis is Eugene Narmour's implication-realization model (1977, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1999), which draws strongly on the Gestalt-inspired groundwork established by Leonard Meyer (1956, 1973, 1989). The implication-realization model offers means of tracking the note-to-note implicative flux of a melody and identifying its points of procession and closure at various hierarchical levels. Narmour notes that

...the separate registral and intervallic aspects of small intervals...are said to be implicatively governed from the bottom up by the Gestalt laws of similarity, proximity, and common direction.... As perceptual-theoretical constants, what is important to notice about the invocation of such Gestalt laws is (1) that they have been shown to be highly resistant to learning and thus may be innate...; (2) unlike the notoriously interpretive, holistically supersummative, top-down Gestalt laws of "good" continuation, "good" figure, and "best" organization...the Gestalt laws of similarity, proximity, and common direction are measurable, formalizable, and thus open to empirical testing....

(1989: 46-47)

The following example illustrates the relationship between grouping principles and memetic replication. The opening of Example 1 i, from the Act I finale of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, is replicated at the opening of Schubert's song "Heidenröslein," Example 1 ii. In particular, Schubert imitates the pitch segment marked x, allowing us to regard it as a meme. According to Narmour's segmentation principles, the minim a2 in the second bar of each melody is a point of articulation, for

...incisive points of melodic closure creating pitch groupings take place when in the parameter of duration a short note moves to a long note...; we may mark such durationally cumulative places analytically with the symbol (d) over the closed melodic note, the "d" standing for durational interference in the continuation of the melodic line....

(1989: 45)

Given that the segments are identical, it follows that the implication-realization closural structure of the meme is unchanged. It consists of three melodic-implicative units: D (reiteration of a pitch), IP (realization of implied intervallic similarity but denial of implied registral direction), and P (realization of both implied intervallic similarity and registral direction) (for a full explanation of the meaning of these symbols, see Narmour 1989, 1990, 1992):


Assuming direct imitation by Schubert, it is unlikely for the later composer to have perceived a segmentation of the first four bars such as that shown in Example 1 iv, which conflicts strongly with the concept of durational interference; the segmentation given in Example 1 iii would clearly have had more cognitive reality for Schubert. It will be understood from this simple example that the gene-meme interface is always significant. To say that a meme will prosper if it takes advantage of the perceptual and cognitive environment provided by genes (the hierarchical level of laws, discussed in Section 4.1 below) is insufficient; a meme is in large part defined by the template of that environment.

    1. Coequality

As is seen in Example 1 i and ii above, the identification of constituent memes in music is based upon the principle of coequality-the presence of an overlapping string of data which allows the initial and terminal pitches and medial content of the meme, in both contexts, to be defined by reference to that segment which is copied. Without the presence of a coequal, a particle would not be a meme; it would be, in Lynch's terminology, a mnemon-"[a]n item of brain-stored memory. When copied from one brain to another, it becomes a meme" (1998).

It is clear from this example that the longer an imitated passage, the greater the statistical probability the later copy is a conscious (self-)quotation. Conversely, many very short coequals, of three notes or more, may be so anonymous as to be hard to situate in any nexus of imitation, in the absence of what Nattiez terms strong poietic evidence (1990: 10-16). These particles exist as the common currency of a style, to which all practitioners of a given period and location had access. In western tonal music such patterns-style forms, in Narmour's term, discussed in Section 4.1 below-include basic scale-degree progressions, such as the pattern Þ 3-Þ 2-Þ 1, and simple harmonic progressions, such as the cadential sequence ii63-V-I. This continuum of imitative relationships is represented below:

Figure 1: The Memetic Continuum



  As with the gene, the longer and more complex the meme, the more susceptible it is to fragmentation and miscopying upon replication. It follows from this that long memes have lower copying-fidelity than short, yet perhaps have higher psychological salience; by contrast, memes which are too short, perhaps of fewer than three or four elements, lack the necessary prominence which ensures their fecundity (Dawkins 1989: 18, 194).

  1. Memetic Hierarchies
  2. The meme exists as part of a rich complex of hierarchic levels which operate in two basic dimensions, cultural and structural. While the first dimension is the province of the historian and style analyst, the second is the domain of the music theorist; indeed it is perhaps true to say that over the last century the central preoccupation of music theory has been to model the internal hierarchical structure of music. Since the 1950s, systems conceived in accordance with the concerns of psychology have been increasingly sought.

    1. Cultural Hierarchies
    2. Meyer's definition of style, as "...a replication of patterning, whether in human behaviour or in the artefacts produced by human behaviour, that results from a series of choices made within some set of constraints" (1989: 3), is eminently consonant with the memetic paradigm. Such propagation results in the formation of several cultural strata, represented in the following diagram:

      Figure 2: Cultural Hierarchies (after Meyer 1989: 13-24)



      Depending upon its intrinsic psychological salience, a nascent meme arising at the level of intraopus style may eventually come to be propagated, via the level of idiom (the style of a composer), at the level of dialect-the meme becomes part of the compositional repertoire of all the composers of a given chronological or geographical locus. The implication-realization tradition defines the basic uniparametric patterns which populate the dialect as style forms; in their specific contexts-i.e., at the intraopus level-style forms exist as syntactic, multiparametric style structures. If a meme is propagated in several dialects, it will contribute to the structure of the system of rules ultimately mediating the replication of all memes at lower hierarchic levels. Beyond this, however, the level of laws is governed by innate (i.e., genetically-determined) attributes of perception and cognition, such as the Gestalt principles examined in Section 3.1 above.

      The movement of a meme outwards from the centre of Figure 2 is described in epidemiological terms by those commentators-starting with Juan Delius (1986)-who see memetics as the study of "thought contagion" (Lynch 1996) by "viruses of the mind" (Brodie 1996). The infectivity-or cultural fitness (Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981: 17)-of a meme is an index of its intrinsic appeal to the environment of a brain, which is circumscribed both by innate perceptual and cognitive attributes, and by the receptivity to incursion of the complement of memes already encoded therein.

    3. Structural Hierarchies

    Memes exist within a work at hierarchic levels other than the immediate foreground; they are generated at higher structural levels by memes at lower levels. While perhaps the most obvious means of conceptualizing such intraopus hierarchies, the Schenkerian model has been justly criticized for its axiomatic imbalance-the a priori generation of every structure recursively downwards from the Ursatz-which is at odds with the interplay between the "bottom-up" and "top-down" operations which characterize musical processing. By contrast, the implication-realization model discussed in Section 3.1 above is one system which, while capable of accounting for hierarchical structures, attempts to reconcile top-down and bottom-up mechanisms by taking account of lower-level procession and closure. Moreover, it lends itself well to mapping memetic replication at various strata within a work.

    One fundamental unit in intraopus hierarchies is the style structure (see Section 4.1 above), which might be understood as

    ...a kind of "theme" that listeners implicatively map from the top down onto incoming foreground "variations." They hear different melodic variants on lower levels as creating similar structural-tone "themes" on higher levels.

    (Narmour 1999: 444)

    The following diagram represents in abstract fashion how a style structure consists of a constellation of pitch structures, each of which is demarcated by Gestalt closural principles. These generate (bottom-up), and are perceived in terms of (top-down), a middleground "theme" at the . level:

    Figure 3: Implication-Realization Hierarchies (after Narmour 1999: Figure 2)



    Note: Dotted vertical lines represent transformation of initial and terminal pitches of lower-level groupings to higher levels. Brackets above units are implication-realization spans, as in Example 1 i and ii above. The diagram simplifies the relationship between units for, as in Example 1, terminal pitches of one unit may simultaneously function as the initial pitch of another.


    Memes may assemble to form confederations termed coadapted meme-complexes, or memeplexes (Blackmore 1999: 19). If it is accepted that the four foreground-level memes which generate the first structure at the level in Figure 3 might theoretically occur in another context, then while existing as a level meme (it is memetic at this level because the same level structure occurs in these two hypothetical contexts), it also exists as a replicated complex of patterns at the foreground level. Each individual foreground pattern is a meme (it exists in this form in these two contexts, and may exist independently in other contexts), but each complex is also memetic. Furthermore-applying the same logic recursively to higher levels-if it is accepted that the two level memes which generate the . level structure in Figure 3 might theoretically occur in another context, then while existing as a . level meme (it is memetic at this level because the same . level structure occurs in these two hypothetical contexts), it also exists as a replicated complex of patterns at the level.

    Clearly real units at the foreground level generate virtual configurations at higher structural levels. It may be the case that the same pattern is replicated at more than one level in a work; or, in different works, the same pattern may be propagated not at their foregrounds, but at higher levels. In this second case, on a strict definition, these are not units of direct imitation, but they are units of consequential replication and are therefore memetic. The structure of such higher-level memes is potentially instructive for what it can tell us about the conglomerative grammar of foreground orientated memes, which is ultimately a function of their initial and terminal nodes, pitch content, and the way these elements interact with our cognitive attributes.

  3. Psychological Representation: The Meme as Cognitive Schema
  4. Robert Gjerdingen sees the style structure (see Sections 4.1 and 4.2 above) as a category of cognitive schema, its constituent style forms being akin to generative lower-level features (1988: 45-46). In the following example, a "Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 changing-note" schema is shown-adopting Gjerdingen's symbology-enclosed in square brackets, its initial and terminal events being demarcated by canted brackets. Component features include the Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 upper line (the "theme"), the Þ 1-Þ 2...Þ 7-Þ 1 lower line (scale degrees being represented by circled numerals), and the I-V43...V65-I harmonic pattern (1988: 63-67):

    Example 2: The Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 Changing-Note Schema: after Haydn, Minuet from Divertimento in C major Hob. XIV: 10 (c. 1760), bb. 1-4

    In perception, bottom-up processes at the opening of this phrase will first identify the component features of the initial event, but without at this stage comprehending their broader context. At some point within the initial event, the cumulative evidence of the features will elicit the selection of the Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 schema, which then regulates, by top-down perceptual processes, the search for the remaining features. The unit is deemed closed-instantiated-when all those expected features comprising the terminal event are registered.

    In generation, a middleground schematic meme is engendered by the bottom-up tendency of a set of foreground feature memes to conglomerate in a particular sequence-to form a memeplex (see Section 4.2 above). From a top-down perspective, the middleground meme has a number of loci along its length, analogous to those on a chromosome, for which allelic feature memes conforming to the parameters of the class of features for that locus compete. The third position of the Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 schema, for instance, may only be filled by memes expressing the harmony V65, the scale degree Þ 4, and conformant in shape to the meme in first position.

    From this one might infer that such cognitive schemata create selection pressure in favour of memetic conformance. In Example 2, for instance, the bass pattern c1-g1-f1-e1-d1 in bb. 1-2 and the corresponding b-f1-e1-d1-c1 in bb. 3-4 (together with their associated rhythmic meme, 1/4   .   Ä  Ö    |      ), while different memes (because of their dissimilar scale-degree orientation and contrasting internal intervallic structure), may achieve comparable population sizes in the dialect because of their membership of a schema which favours parallelism between its initial and terminal melodic events.

  5. Memetic Mutation and Stylistic Evolution
  6. The process of natural selection driving universal Darwinism (Section 1 above) is, Daniel Dennett explains, "substrate neutral," and requires only the following three conditions:

    (1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements[;] (2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves[;] (3) differential "fitness": the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists[.]

    (1995: 343)

    In memetic terms, the variation (mutation) of memes creates the required "abundance"; the replication of memes is, of course, one of their defining attributes, furnishing the necessary "heredity"; and it is the case that novel (mutant) memes are more likely to be imitated than those already established in the meme pool, imparting to them a higher "differential fitness."

    If a meme is perceived as a variant of an existing form, this deviation from the antecedent configuration may aid its differential fitness. This may be because the mutation has the effect of increasing its implicative energy, which might in turn have the effect of raising its cultural fitness. For instance, meme x from Example 1 i and ii above might be mutated by changing the closing a2 of its second bar to e2. The resulting terminal IP structure (replacing the original P) is less closed-Narmour regards the IP shape as an example of "partial denial" of implications (1989: 48)-and this characteristic arguably makes the mutant meme more psychologically salient, and therefore more fecund, than its antecedent:


    Example 3: Memetic Mutation, after Mozart: Die Zauberflöte K. 620 (1791) no. 8, bb. 327-328

    If it is the case that such changes affect the propensity of memes to imitation, then the meme is clearly an active replicator, defined by Dawkins as

    ...any replicator whose nature has some influence over its probability of being copied. For example a DNA molecule, via protein synthesis, exerts phenotypic effects which influence whether it is copied: this is what natural selection is all about. A passive replicator is a replicator whose nature has no influence over its probability of being copied. A xeroxed sheet of paper at first sight seems to be an example, but some might argue that its nature does influence whether it is copied, and therefore that it is active: humans are more likely to xerox some sheets of paper than others, because of what is written on them, and these copies are, in their turn, relatively likely to be copied again.

    (1983: 83)

    Such changes at the level of the individual meme have a cumulative effect which eventually leads to changes at higher hierarchic levels. The Þ 1-Þ 7...Þ 4-Þ 3 schema discussed in Section 5 above, for instance, gradually declined in population density in the early-nineteenth century because of the consequences of changes to its constituent features (see the population distribution curve in Gjerdingen 1988: 263, which gives its apogee as c. 1773). As these components changed, so did the resultant middleground style structure; although the distinction is fuzzy and ultimately subjective, beyond a certain point of alteration a style structure-indeed any meme-is no longer the same pattern mutated, but a different pattern.

  7. Selfish Memes and Human Consciousness
  8. As an epidemiology of culture (see Section 4.1 above), memetics regards the meme as an infective agent, selfishly existing in a sometimes mutualist, sometimes commensal, but often parasitic relationship with us, its hosts. We are mere vessels, just as the body is the vessel for the near-immortal line of genes which engender it. Taking this argument one step further, Dennett adopts the language of artificial intelligence in claiming that

    Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a [serial] virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for any such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs, but at the same time many of its most curious features, and especially its limitations, can be explained as the byproducts of the kludges [i.e., ad hoc software repairs] that make possible this curious but effective reuse of an existing organ for novel purposes.

    (1993: 210; his emphases)

    Ultimately, however, memetics even undermines the notion of a unitary conscious self, seeing this as merely a memeplex, albeit a large and sophisticated one; Blackmore, the leading advocate of this argument, speaks provocatively of

    ...the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all....the 'selfplex.' The selfplex permeates all our experience and all our thinking so that we are unable to see it clearly for what it is-a bunch of memes.

    (1999: 231)

    This interpretation clearly challenges received conceptions of the creative process in music. Where traditionally the composer is seen as in full conscious control of the creation of a work, many accounts given by composers themselves suggest the validity of a memetic analysis. Despite the variable authenticity of some such remarks, sufficient consensus exists among them to suggest that the composer is

    ...not so much conscious of his ideas as possessed by them. Very often he is unaware of his exact processes of thought till he is through with them; extremely often the completed work is incomprehensible to him immediately after it is finished.

    (Roger Sessions, in Sloboda 1996: 115)

    In the ontogeny of a musical work, memes rage within the composer's selfplex, gradually conglomerating memotypically to engender the finished structure in its phemotypic incarnation. Adopting Dennett's computer analogy, the "greatness" of the product is a function of the composer's memory capacity, neuropsychological processing power, and the richness of the environment-the complexity of the software-to which he or she is exposed.

  9. Conclusion: Memetics, Musicology, and Psychology
  10. Some recent literature in memetics has attempted to draw an analogy between the position of evolutionary biology in the 1850s and the status of memetics today (Blackmore 1999: 56-58; Dennett 1995: 352-360). Accepting the phenotypic evidence of evolution by natural selection but lacking the knowledge of genetics to understand the genotypic mechanism, biology started to make substantial progress as a result of the New Synthesis of the 1930s. Similarly, to many commentators memetics offers a theory of cultural transmission and evolution in accordance with the phemotypic evidence, but one as yet incompletely supported by knowledge of the memotypic mechanisms of information storage.

    Indeed, it the case that if memetics is to avoid becoming, in the words of Gatherer cited in Section 1 above, "merely a meta-narrative," it needs to address not just phemotypic issues of pattern imitation and coequality, but also memotypic questions concerning the psychological representation of musical patterning and the neurological encoding of musical information-and the complex matter of how these two realms interrelate (see Section 2 above). While the neurophysiology of the brain is, of course, incompletely understood, neural net models-which propose that musical patterns are coded for by chronotopic (durational), level-topic (hierarchic), and tonotopic (pitch) neurons (Narmour 1999: 460-464)-offer a means of understanding the nature and functioning of memes at this most fundamental level. Bharucha notes that such models

    ...can account for how we learn musical patterns through exposure....their assumptions are either known or plausible principles of neuroscience....they shed light on the observation...that aspects of pitch and harmony involve the mental completion (or Gestalt perception) of patterns....they are capable of recognizing varying shades of similarity and are therefore well suited to modeling similarity-based accounts...of tonality or modality....[and] they can discover regularities in musical styles that may elude formal music-theoretic analysis....[Moreover]...a neural net can learn temporal composite patterns so that they function as schemas and as sequential memories.

    (1999: 413, 424)

    In conclusion, despite these challenges, and despite the reservations some might have to the controversial issues noted in Section 7 above, there is much to commend the memetic paradigm as relevant to the concerns of musicology and music psychology. Firstly, given that musical analysis is "...the resolution of a musical structure into relatively simpler constituent elements, and the investigation of the functions of those elements within that structure" (Bent and Drabkin 1987: 1), it is legitimate to attempt to cleave the structure at perceptual/cognitive-imitative joints, for these articulations, as noted in Section 3.1 above, have strong psychological realty for composers and listeners. Secondly, the memetic perspective is fully concordant with the synchronic view of music as a multileveled hierarchic structure and the diachronic view of music as a timeline of imitative connection manifesting change over time. Thirdly, there is clearly much common ground between musicology, music psychology, and memetics. The area of overlap between the three disciplines clearly has the potential to be a place of fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration.

    © Steven Jan, May 2000.

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