What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “meme”?
I would venture a guess that it is something like the image above, a display of most commonly a person or animal with some cheeky caption.
Now, why on earth would I talk about this in a music blog?
As it turns out, musical themes are memes too, and thinking of music
in terms of memes will help you get better at both improvisation and
image[yoda_meme, Yoda telling us that we can learn a lot from memes]
Today, we will explore what memes really are, what distinguishes "good memes" from "bad memes" and how you can capitalize on this knowledge to craft truly catchy melodies that may one day turn into a hit.
In order to understand what memes are and how they can be helpful to us musicians, we must first go on a brief excursion into the realms of biology and talk about genes and natural selection.
This may seem a bit far-fetched, but bear with me and it will all make sense.
Natural selection favors good genes
Genes are snippets of DNA that serve as blueprints for every living organism on our planet.
You find them literally everywhere: in the teeny tiny viruses and bacteria that make you sick, in animals large or small (including you) and in any plants from the majestic sequoia trees to the mundane ingredients of your salad.
The reason why we find genes everywhere is because they are not ordinary boring molecules, but they have a superpower, namely the power to create copies of themselves.
In biology, a thing that can make copies of itself is called a
If the genes do a good job, the animal or plant they shape and control will breed successfully, and the genes get copied and passed on to the next generation.
Naturally, some genes are better than others at getting themselves copied.
A gene that makes an animal live longer or have more offspring will end up with more copies than alternative genes. A rabbit with a gene for longer legs will escape the fox, and the “long legs” gene will become more numerous in the rabbit population. This is the fate of good replicators.
image[jumping_rabbit, a rabbit taking a leap]
In contrast, a rabbit with a gene for shorter legs is more likely to get caught by the fox than a long-legged brother or sister. Thus, any “short legs” genes tend to end up in the belly of the fox and vanish from a rabbit population. This is the fate of bad replicators.
In short, if a gene “has whatever it takes” to become more numerous in
a population, it will do just that, become more numerous.
This is a simple mathematical law, which biologists call “natural selection”, and it is the entire reason why “good” genes are abundant, and why living creatures are generally very good at whatever they do all day.
Now what does this have to do with music?
Natural selection favors good music, too
It turns out, genes are not the only form of information that spreads through populations through natural selection.
This has been pointed out, most famously in the 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, using the example of songbirds.
image[songbird, a songbird sitting on a branch]
Most interestingly, the musical repertoire of a songbird is not hard-coded by the bird’s genes, but it is learned.
We know this because birds brought up by foster parents of a different species will learn their foster parent’s songs. In fact, birds can learn any kind of song as they are exceptionally talented at learning music by ear.
Even more interestingly, songbirds have been observed to come up with a new tune every now and then, or a variation of a tune they already know.
Yes, songbirds are the original licksters!
This begs the question: Why is it that some songs are popular “hits” among bird populations and other songs are not?
Once again, natural selection will favor “successful songs”, i.e. likable songs that attract suitable mates, and weed out “unsuccessful songs”, i.e. boring songs or songs that tend to attract predators instead of mates.
Therefore, a bird song is something much like a gene, it is a replicator that can be copied and that is subject to the rules of natural selection.
Thinking of “gene”, Dawkins coined the similar sounding term “meme”, which he defines simply as “an entity that is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another”.
In our worldwide population of humans, there are many such entities that can be transmitted form brain to brain:
- physical or mental images (Yoda)
- social behavior patterns (Bow or shake hands to greet? Forks or
- speech mannerisms (do you say “gif” or “gif”?)
- And as we have seen, musical themes!
Each musical theme you play is in principle a meme that has the
potential to go viral.
Memes are a fascinating thing, as their sole purpose seems to revolve around appealing to people and being shared.
Remember the meme at the top of this article? It features Nora the Piano Cat.
Here is a video of Nora playing the piano:
At the time of writing, this particular video has garnered about 225,000 views. Not bad, for a cat.
The image-meme contained in this video ("cat playing the piano") has found its way into the brains of hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions of people around the world. And guess what, a copy now lives in your brain, too!
A furry feline playing the piano like she means it is such a ludicrous thought that you can't help but smile at it. The mental picture evokes a strong emotion, which makes it difficult to forget. It just "can't be unseen".
But what about the music? How do the cat's musical themes fare as memes?
What makes a good musical meme?
We humans (or piano playing cats) are more fortunate than birds in the wild, as we don't have to fear predators upon hitting the wrong notes. We don't usually have to give up hope of meeting a suitable mate either.
Nonetheless, the music we produce can either be remembered, liked and shared by an audience, or it can simply be forgotten.
Thus, the success or failure of a musical meme is measured simply by
its ability to be remembered.
You have just watched Nora play the piano a minute ago.
I challenge you to recall the melody she played. Try to remember it and sing it.
Not so easy, eh?
Here is my attempt to copycat the cat:
Undoubtedly, the cat is playing some sort of melody. You can call it a tune or a lick if you are generous. But would you say this is a catchy tune?
I don’t think so.
It took me the better part of an hour to replicate what the heck the cat played, and I had to come up with a makeshift harmony, as there appears to be none.
And no matter how hard I try, I find it almost impossible to remember the tune. It just doesn’t seem to want to stick to my brain.
This lick has abysmal odds of ever being memorized, repeated or copied by listeners. In terms of natural selection, it will make an absolutely lousy replicator, and the musical meme is doomed to go extinct.
I'm sorry to say it, Nora, but your music sucks.
Now let's contrast the cat lick with some examples of exceptionally good musical memes.
I bet my hat that you will recognize at least one of the following melodies:
The first lick is the theme of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The second one is “Happy Birthday”, and the third one is the baseline to “Another one bites the dust” by Queen.
These memes live not just in your brain, but in the brains of millions, or perhaps even billions of people, who have no problem recognizing them.
They are examples of excellent replicators, and as a consequence they are wide-spread in the human population, to the point where it is hard to imagine that they will ever vanish from the collective memory of humanity.
Now to the million dollar question:
Why are these themes so catchy and easy to remember, whereas the cat’s
lick is not? (Sorry, Nora)
We can answer this question by identifying what the three viral musical memes have in common.
At first glance they couldn’t be more different. One is a theme taken from a classical symphony, one is a popular folk song from the late 1800’s, and one is a 1980’s rock theme.
If you listen closely, though, you will find some common patterns.
Here are the 3 rules I identified that make a lick sound catchy and easy to remember:
1) keep it simple
Each of the viral licks consists of a short and simple phrase that has a clear beginning and a clear end. Although each lick has a different pace, they all fit within 2 or 4 measures.
Simplicity is key for the simple fact that short patterns are easier to remember than long patterns. A short meme “sticks” to a brain more easily than a long meme.
For exactly this reason most emergency numbers have only 3 digits (911 in the USA), and not the usual 10 digits.
The cat lick is awkwardly long before there is a noticeable break in the phrase. I am also not sure whether this is the intended “end” of the lick or not.
2) repeat patterns
Each of the viral licks is made from short patterns that are repeated in a slightly altered way.
The repeat can either be in a different register (“ta-ta-ta-TAA”, “ta-ta-ta-TAA”), in a slightly altered melody (“happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you”), or in a slightly altered rhythm. (“bum-bum-bum - pause, another one bites the dust - pause”).
In any case, the resulting call-and-response structure will be easy to remember, as the two parts are very similar to one another. If you remember one part, you will have an easy time remembering the second part, too.
The cat lick has no recognizable structure to it. There are short patterns but they do not seem to be repeated in a regular way.
3) emphasize a melody
In each of the viral memes, you will have no trouble making out a clear melody.
To make your melodies easy to follow, try to stick with a consistent rhythmical theme and make sure the melody fits within a comfortable range between the lowest note and the highest note.
If done right, the melody will stand out on its own and you (and others) will have no trouble singing it.
The cat’s melody is not that easy to sing as the rhythm is more or less random and it is not always clear which note is supposed to be the melody note.
Make your licks stand out
Licks work like memes. This is our key lesson of the day.
In practical terms, this means that your music can be engineered to sound catchy.
Keep melodies short, work with repeats, and make them easy to sing.
Try to stick to these rules of thumb next time you improvise a solo or write a song.
This way your music will have a real chance of appealing to an audience and actually being remembered.
The world out there is cruel and unforgiving.
Give your musical memes the best chance at survival!