music as a memetic virus

Music: an art form in which the medium is sound.

Meme: any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

When was the last time you had a song stuck in your head? When was the last time you kept listening to the same song, over and over and over again? What melodies or songs can you sing right off the top of your head, without having to think about them? Which ones do you have to think about?

As per the above definition, a meme is a viral idea: one that sticks. The most effective memes, therefore, are the ones that replicate and the ones that last. In pop music, this equates to the idea of the hook – and in classical music theory, this relates to the idea of motive. What are the three catchiest piece of music you can think of? For me, off the top of my head: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Chable & Bonnici – Ride, and the Mario Theme, by Koji Kondo.

I’ll bet you that any reader of this website will be able to sing, hum, or whistle one of those three tunes.

This concept of memetic strength, or whatever you want to call it, is important for a few reasons:

Firstly, it sells records, gets people to clubs, and puts asses in seats at concert halls – all of which are always important.

Secondly, it creates influence, both consciously and unconsciously. I can’t speak for Beethoven’s 5th, but I can say with all authority that ‘Ride’ created a horde of imitators. Koji Kondo’s amazing 8-bit work helped spawn the modern chiptune community and was basically the gold standard for NES music.

Thirdly, we (as artistic composers, video game composers, DJs, or whatever) can use it to our advantage. As a DJ, I can play an acapella over a really weird track and get people dancing. As a composer, I can take an old theme and vary it. If I’m writing for video games, I can match certain hooks to certain events in-game, and so on.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it takes up mental space. How can you listen to other music when the hook from ‘Music Is My Hot Hot Sex’ refuses to stop playing on your mental radio? And then, once you’ve memorized that hook and the lyrics to that hook, you’ve got less space to absorb other music. A case could be made that this is why people’s taste in music changes less as they get older: any new music has to displace the music that, in some sort of twisted version of Darwinism, is fighting for survival and remembrance.

This survival of the hookiest is, for me, most the interesting part: what, other than cultural gravity, ensures that a piece of music is going to last for hundreds of years? Is there any proof that music lasts on its own merits, or that the best music is the music that is remembered? Or are we stuck in a world where the longest-lasting music virus is not the one that is best for the host?