After reading chapter eleven of Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish
Gene (the one where he introduces the term "meme" to the public
consciousness) and thinking about my record collection, it occurred
to me that each song or piece of music can be thought of as a memeplex,
while any constituent part of it could be thought of as an individual
meme, be it an instrument, sample, melody, rhythm, chord progression,
time signature, or even the topic of a song's lyric.
A meme is essentially an idea, and a memeplex is a group of compatible
ideas. Specific examples of musical memes might include such diverse
elements as the sound of an acoustic piano, the Amen break, the main
melody to Beethoven's Ninth, the four-to-the-floor beat of house
music, blues chord progressions, four over four time, or the lyrical
theme of falling in love.
It would even appear that just as certain genes work better together,
such as those for creating sharp teeth and those for digesting flesh,
so do certain musical memes. For example, the memes of an acoustic
drum kit, an electric guitar, an electric bass guitar, power chords,
singing aggressively and four over four time all work well together,
whereas a combination of, say, power chords, singing softly and
singing a lyric about the theme of falling in love wouldn't work as
When an artist's music is said to be formulaic, it generally means
that they have stuck with a certain combination of memes for several
songs. This is usually because they've found that particular
combination to be more popular than the memeplexes they've offered
on previous songs, so it's understandable that they might want to
stick with the successful memeplex until it ceases to be popular.
A good example of this is the memeplex of Moby's successful work,
which for the most part consists of the following memes: an old
recording of someone singing a blues vocal; religious wording in the
lyric; a lyric dealing with the emotions caused by hard times; the
house style playing of chords on a piano; dramatic strings; breakbeats;
four over four time.
If a song is a memeplex, then a genre is roughly analogous to a
species. The combination I mentioned earlier of acoustic drum kit,
electric guitar, electric bass guitar, aggressive singing and - more
likely than not - power chords is the baseline (so to speak) memeplex
of modern rock music, although it can still work in combination with
enough of a diversity of other memes to provide a rich memetic
environment in which to work.
Where the analogy to genetics falls apart is that breeding between
more than one parent, and even between different species, can work
and should even be encouraged. Although certain combinations of
memes work better together than others, it can often be surprising
which memes get plucked from their native genre to be used in an
entirely different one, from the ethnic vocal used in the bridge of
The Prodigy's hit Smack My Bitch Up to the use of reggae skanks and
dub techniques in Leftfield's album Leftism.
Pop music is well known for assimilating memes once they have been
established in more interesting genres. For example, hiphop, which
became popular in the eighties, incorporated the vocal style of
rapping. As a result of its popularity, by the early nineties many
pop songs had incorporated the meme of rapping, although it was
mostly confined to the bridge of an otherwise more orthodox song.
Popular music, even that which has artistic merit, is always the
result of combining established memes with only one or two fringe
memes. Relatively obscure recordings may consist of, say, rapping
over the top of a drum machine playing simple rhythms, such as is
the case with LL Cool J's album Radio. However, rapping was only
introduced to the mainstream when Run-D.M.C. combined these fringe
memes with the familiar memes of electric guitars and melodic riffs
in Raising Hell.
Not only is it difficult to make a song or piece of music that
consists entirely of original memes, it's also guaranteed to make
your music unpopular. The replicating equipment of these memeplexes
is the general public, and they won't buy or copy music consisting
of entirely original memes in sufficient quantities to propagate it
throughout the public consciousness. Only memeplexes based mostly
on established memes are likely to survive, with at most one or two
new ones thrown in for novelty.
For example, when synthesisers were first manufactured, several
musicians released albums consisting of original music played solely
on the new devices. These albums quickly faded into obscurity. For
them to catch the public attention, it took Wendy Carlos's performance
of well known classical music on one of these new instruments on her album Switched-On Bach, not
to mention various rock musicians who incorporated some of the new,
synthetic sounds into their otherwise orthodox rock music.
In other words, popular music is always the result of gradual
evolution, never intelligent design. If you consciously try to sit
down and invent a whole new genre, then at best you will only influence
other musicians. The most you could hope for would be that they
would in turn create music that fused one or two of your memes with
many more accepted memes as this would likely create the first popular
music that incorporated your memes. At worst, even that won't happen
and your music will instantly fade into obscurity.
If you feel that your music should be original for artistic purposes,
then bear in mind that it is enough for the combination of memes
to be unique - or at least relatively rare. The individual memes
themselves seldom need or even benefit from being entirely new,
Don't worry if this Darwinian process of evolving music seems
painstakingly slow. It should be greatly sped up by the many musicians
and vocalists starting to release their work under various Creative
Commons licenses. The easier it is for musicians to legally remix,
cover and build upon each other's songs, even taking snippets of
someone else's work and putting it in an entirely new context, the
faster music will evolve.
If you remix someone else's song, then whichever version is objectively
seen as the best - quantifiable as which is the most popular - is
the version which other people will hear, and therefore have the
opportunity to remix and build upon in turn. This survival of the
fittest model closely resembles biological evolution, and should
result in the most popular memes sticking around for a long time,
merging with new ones and disregarding the less popular ones as
people's tastes change.
It's an exciting thought to realise that we are able to witness such
an explosion of new ideas being mixed in with established ones. It
will be interesting to see what emerges as a result of musicians
making a conscious effort to work together for the good of their
music. After all, as Richard Dawkins points out, these memes will
likely long outlive their creators' biological genes.