Acoustic Memetics: Non-Verbal Musical Meaning Structures

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The following is excerpted from Astromusik, available here

Archetypal symbols, including musical themes, can take on a number of different meanings depending on one’s personal associations to them. By analogy, someone who spent their childhood playing in the woods may have a pleasant experience of a forest dream, while a city dweller may regard the woods as an unfamiliar and threatening environment. In both scenarios the forest symbol invokes the mysteries of nature, but the life experience of the dreamer changes the meaning of that symbol. In a similar way, a piece of music can mean something different to each person. Personal associations with a musical moment may include thoughts, feelings, memories, and so forth. Our rational mind wants to create logical statements about music in order to understand it, such as “the melody ascends, so I think of moving upward” and “I recognize this as a children’s song, I think of children”. However, our imagination produces associations that are more analogical and not so directly correlated. It makes no difference what we think of, so long as we’re really tuning in to the music and allowing the associations to freely sprout from the mental link between the song and our subconscious mind.

Dreams are a theatre of the soul, where the dreamer takes on the role of playwright, performer, and audience all at once. The creative process of Music composition is similar; songwriters imagine, perform and listen to their songs all at once. Psychic energy rooted in the upper-dimensional domains of Mind appears to the creative artist in a variety of forms, sometimes as a melody or chord progression, while other times it appears as an image, thought, or somatic feeling. The central task of a musician is to translate these seeds of psychic energy into sound frequencies. Every person has his or her own way of arriving at the final musical product, but the initial creative impulse is always a critical starting point.

Human consciousness seems to be composed of at least three important parts; a formless observer, an indwelling spiritual and genetic propensity for certain ways of being, and a socio-cultural programming that sculpts our thoughts and actions according to its customs. Language and musical meaning operate primarily through the third channel, internalized by the individual as a way of relating adequately and appropriately to the collective, our willingness to subscribe to these social codes being informed in a deep way by our animal instincts for survival and pleasure. One of the most fundamental liberties of humankind is to learn how to reprogram the inherited language and conceptual maps of reality so as to discover our true nature.

What makes music so unique is its self-referential quality. A musical event can only be understood meaningfully in terms of other intratextual and extratextual musical events. Music rarely refers to specific physical and external things in the world, and when it does we recognize it immediately as an artifice. Songcraft involves, with few exceptions, the ability to portray unnamable and invisible forces through sound.

As a product of Western culture, the language of music is inseparable from our dominant, mentally programmed relationship to trans-cultural archetypes in the collective human psyche. Our task is to understand how meaning (i.e. archetypal energy) is embedded into cultural forms in general. We will presently explore this question through the study of memetics, a relatively young field of scientific inquiry that describes cultural information transference in terms of biological evolutionary tendencies. Analogous to the scientific concept of a gene, the meme is described as a unit of culture hosted by human minds, seeking to replicate and transfer its content from one person to the next. Its lifespan is determined by its usefulness within the various socio-cultural matrices to which it belongs. Often times it will glom on to other memetic structures so as to improve its likelihood of survival. In this way, our world’s myths and musical masterpieces have taken form beginning with the simplest memetic-thematic devices and building up over time into vast networks of cultural ideology. Our minds behave like complex machines, internalizing these ideas, accepting or rejecting them, storing, utilizing, and even transfiguring them so as to render them useful in our own biological survival. One could argue that memes are also useful for trans-terrestrial psychic circuitry, granting us insights into astral travel and various other disembodied states of consciousness. In other words, memes are not merely applicable to mundane mind states but also to the navigation of advanced spiritual states. 

When memes cluster together, they form a new structure whose impact upon consciousness is potentially more nuanced and effective than any of its individual parts. Take for example a musical melody, composed of individual notes that by themselves are modest and unassuming, yet when coupled in a sequence of intervals can produce a musical idea that worms its way into our auditory cortex and doesn’t go away. We won’t have much luck trying to make sense of the melody in terms of its individual notes, but we can make sense of harmonic interval fragments and their relations to one another, especially if we are clued in to the subtle codes of Western music. Every musical product spawns from a database of culture. Even those musical events that trigger ecstatic, transcendental states can be intellectually traced back to the composer’s implementation of special musical and memetic devices.

Transference of memes between human hosts represents the localized expression of a nonlocal, more expansive exchange taking place in the mind sphere, or ideosphere. Anyone with access to the cultural schematics of a civilization is theoretically able to exert control over the population through skillful use of its symbols. New memetic structures are assembled to subtly manipulate the subconscious assumptions and beliefs of a people. Typically this is accomplished through the dramatic play of human archetypes and myth in movies and theatrical performances. Music composition plays an integral role in psychic engineering, imbuing the dramatic human archetypes of myth with a deeper harmonic and geometric subtext. In this way, certain types of archetypal events in film and theatre can be consistently linked to musical forms so as to create deep, subconscious associations between the two. The average person passively absorbs their audio-visual indoctrination into a cultural meme sphere without any second thoughts. What most of us don’t realize is how the deepest core of our ego-identities are being molded by that culture, instilled with non-universal beliefs and assumptions used by the programmers to remote-control us. Inquiry into musical memetics as a method of social engineering is essential, even if somewhat uncomfortable to accept. Memetic structures can be used both consciously and unconsciously to subtly force an individual into behavioral conformity against their will. Culture-hosts are often indoctrinated into their worldview to such a degree that they cannot understand how anyone else would see the world differently. Encounters with foreign meme-fields can pose a real threat to inflexible ego structures, because like a virus, ideas can easily propagate and take root in the psyche against our will.

As events unfold on our planet, microcosmic musical laws mutate and shape-shift to reflect these changes in the collective. When a meme fails to bind to a host organism, it remains encoded in that physical artifact and may wait indefinitely to be internalized by another entity. If that artifact in question disappears without sufficient sociocultural integration of its indwelling spirit, it runs the risk of extinction. Like Darwin’s notion of the survival of the fittest, these memes must literally “fit” into our database of cultural significance if they wish to survive. Those ideas that do fit into and modify pre-existing structures of a cultural pod have the power to create corresponding changes in the behavior of its human hosts.

Inasmuch as music influences and organizes the activities of mind, and considering that the way we organize our thoughts influences the actions we take in the world, it follows that music may be exploited to shape consensus reality and its physical manifestations. Adaptive and transformational tendencies within a cultural macrocosm vary depending on the root assumptions of that culture. An operating system whose memetic structure includes the axiom {novelty creates instability} is unlikely to generate or relate in a healthy way to microcosmic-harmonic novelty. Commercial music is the best example of this inflexible and calcified attitude towards innovation. Driven by an appeal to the market, corporate executives attempt to identify stable formulas, find musicians who can replicate the formula, and disseminate the product to a target audience with the express intention of capitalizing on their gullibility. From the perspective of musical economics, the audience is little more than a programmable, mind-controlled energy source. By establishing a homogenized meme pool of microcosmic musical codes, these figures can effectively control the perceptions of its audience for long periods of time.

Transmoral to the core, myth has an innate power to sculpt and influence reality in accordance with our consciously activated will. If we’re not careful, the blessing power of music and memetic programming can be inverted and turned against us, particularly through a seduction to gain power over others. This has become especially apparent in the black arts of corporate marketing and advertising, a domain where the symbol-illiterate masses are often manipulated into believing that such-and-such a product is going to provide them something essential to human life that in reality it never could and never does. Alert, alert! This kind of manipulative social engineering is where the transmoral essence of myth becomes amoral and can lead the naïve down a dark, soul-destroying path justified by the seemingly common-sense inexorability of the need to make money and maximize corporate profit.

Acoustic physics and professional audio production have never been more advanced. Yet without the blessing of a songwriter’s higher genius for harmonic innovation, music can quickly become homogenous and redundant. The lack of adventurous musicianship in the modern world has become a serious issue. Facing the dilemma of modern music, we turn to speculative musicology and can begin to redefine, reinterpret, and reimagine our way into the existing musical forms so as to find new methods of creating and listening. Thankfully, the dross of mainstream music and its ideological fundamentalism repels a substantial number of artists into countercultural and revolutionary attitudes toward the establishment, reflected in their strange deviations from the musical norms.

An individual or subculture operating on the assumption that {novelty is healthy} will tend to be more open to mutations in the musical microcosm. Musicians who pledge to make innovations to the medium often struggle immensely against the inertia of conventional musical reality tunnels. Unfortunately, this is the price they pay for individuating from the herd.

In psychological terms, the collective unconscious, as a combined psyche of all human civilizations, holds the records of every existing physical and memetic structure in totality. Languages, including music, represent the psychic circuitry of information exchange, whereby energy is encapsulated, organized and circulated through the collective human psyche to produce physical results. A person who has not learned to disengage from their earliest social programming will remain more or less trapped in that subculture, and in turn, in the modes of behavior deemed appropriate.

Whoever opens up to the infinitude of aesthetic possibilities in the art world as though they were all potentially valuable can expect to be transformed by the internal memetic mutations that follow. The apparent antagonism between culture and counter-culture can be dispelled through our awareness of the macrocosm as a holistic social organism of which we are a part. To take sides with one camp exclusively is to lose sight of the big picture and its perfection as a memetic field. It is nearly impossible for us to live without aesthetic biases, but to view and judge the world’s music as if our preferences were ‘correct’ leads to an unnecessarily limited relationship to the world’s music. Our judgments upon music are a function of ego identification with a limited cultural program.

Symbols and myth are inherently neutral, neither good nor bad, or perhaps both good and bad, depending on how we view it.  We are each individually responsible for the way we wield our creative power. An adequate interpretation of symbols requires that we have access to a highly subjective, personalized mythic landscape of meaning and significance. The resulting belief system may be refined and sophisticated or fragmentary and haphazard depending on how much inner work we have put into cultivating our inner life. As we enhance the harmony of our symbolic codes, we infuse both our inward and outward experiences with a wealth of meanings whose richness depends on the architectural integrity of our inner, psychic temple. Our personal myth is charged with personal and collective meaning patterns that orient us like guide posts and inform our free will. This process unfurls moment-by-moment as we navigate through the living dreamscape. In turn, the ways in which we relate to the melodic and harmonic phrasing of a song will vary depending on our relationship to the sociocultural matrix with which we identify.

Music, whose sonic-mythic content reflects both conscious and subconscious contents of the autonomous psyche, is the premier symbolic expression of psychic energy.  Following this further, music offers an audible mirror, reflecting internal conditions with a tendency to synchronize and correlate to the source of that very music. Our self-image is a product of the stories we internalize from our cultural informants, whose contents are in turn influenced and informed by the big-picture mythological archetypes of the world at large. The characters and scenarios of myth are part of our cultural inheritance, the nucleus around which our sense of ego-identity constellates. What we perceive as happening objectively in music is truly a reflection of something happening within us. We are dreaming up the world around us in a way that is informed by both our perceptions and projections. Just as music has the potential to convey a power that transcends the identifiable structures of its audible form, so do words also point to universal and elemental principles cloaked in presuppositions of the culture to which it belongs. The whole of civilization seems to be the result of linguistic influences upon human perception, and the superimposition of these perceptions onto the world at large.

To understand our own musical biases and cultural programming, we need to develop an understanding of how musical meaning is formulated and maintained. There are two distinct, interconnected spheres of memetic influence that we can identify in the field of speculative music. At the most fundamental level, we encounter the archetypal phenomena of the musical tone, the atomic units of music and their bonds to one another as musical harmony. Like molecular clusters, these harmonic groups are arranged in sequence to produce higher orders of harmonic relationship, what we call the chord progression. Chord progressions become “units” unto themselves and are juxtaposed against one another, as in the classic ABA’ or ABBA structure, to produce song forms. In more elaborate and lengthy musical structures, such as the classical symphony, these same principles of note, interval, and chord progression + melody are still utilized. For the sake of simplicity, we can classify this body of tonal harmony as the musical microcosmos.

In juxtaposition to the musical microcosm of harmony is the socio-cultural matrix and musical macrocosm of genre. Melodic and harmonic forms are granted meaning predominantly by those cultures that inform their genesis. The performance and presentation of music to the audience is equally important. In some cases, the way a person embodies and performs a piece of music is the most meaningful element of that energetic transmission. The images that accompany a piece of music contribute to how we perceive it as well. In reality, there is no part of the musical microcosm that does not owe its effectiveness to the cultural and countercultural biases that both inform and perceive it. Vice versa, there could be no musical culture without the memetic exchange of ideas, and no ideas without the archetypal process of microcosmic musical tone intervals. Musical meaning is hooked into other artistic macrocosms like poetry, film, theatre, and fashion. In these spheres, musical expression is subordinated to the role of cultural signifier, becoming an expendable commodity and placeholder to be traded and monetized in service to the collective, human drama. The outward-oriented domains of artistic culture help to define stable elements of psychological identity among its members. Genres are like sonic territory, the audience its citizens, the microcosmic musical elements its ecological and architectural landscape, the macrocosmic stylistic variations and socio-cultural biases an equivalent to the political arena. The macrocosm informs our collective, creative transmutation of memetic information as reflections of the present day realities of human life.

As intermediary transductors between the macro/micro worlds of culture and musical harmony, our mind-body hologram is being constantly sculpted according to the energies passing through it. Parallel to the metaphysical distinctions of microcosmos and macrocosmos is the distinction of what is within and without. Appreciation for musical harmony is a fundamentally inward process, even though the audible signals may come from outside of us. Suggestions from a movie’s soundtrack, for example, can link certain characters and narrative situations with musical motifs, establishing an intraparadigmatic structure. The predominance of consonance or dissonance may lend to our perception of their role in the story. Their personalities become infused with and inseparable from their musical accompaniment. Richard Wagner called these melodies leitmotifs, a German word indicating a “leading motive” or musical theme. The Lord of the Rings series, for example, features one of the largest collections ever of recurring leitmotifs, each one representing a recurring character, location, or situation in the film. The audience is coerced into unconscious memetic associations between sound and image, forging an emotional synergy between psyche, music, and myth.

Theatre may also draw upon extratextual paradigms of music, such that the perceived meaning of a scene is informed not by the composer’s use of recurring themes within that film, but by the long term, cumulative impact of a psychic relationship between audience and conventions of tonal harmony within the parameters of a certain culture or set of cultures. Imagine a movie scene where the composer has paired classical music with the imagery of a prestigious ballroom party. The film score in this example draws upon our cultural associations between a style of music and its native culture, inciting an emotional response based on our subjective interpretation of these extratextual associations. Encoded into all extratextual music is a self-contained musical microcosm, i.e. the song itself, whose subtleties of internal meaning may or may not have any noticeable impact upon our experience of the movie or theatrical performance. Instead, these sounds are used as cultural signifiers and associative cues for the creation of cinematic moods and atmosphere.

A primary goal of speculative music is to dissolve the boundary between extratextual and intratextual frameworks, to realize the underlying, unified dream-field of our collective imagination. Each of us, as composers and audience, are participatory observers in a Mass Shared Dream. Surrendering to knowledge of the interdependence of all the world’s activity is not merely a passive act. We are being called forward to engage the dream directly and with skillful means. Knowledge of music theory sharpens the sword of the intellect and grants us a finely tuned appreciation of music’s transcendental properties. The cross-disciplinary studies of music and myth will prove equally useful to students of astrology, alchemy, magic, and psychology, as all of these fields of study deal with symbolic representations of our inner life. Investigations into the deeper field dynamics of consciousness result in heightened creativity and lucidity, the energies most responsible for maintaining our sense of happiness and wellness as human beings. Stationed at the center of these micro-macro and intra-extratextual worlds of music is our treasured human individual, the anthropic principle, the nervous system sensorium and transmitter-receiver vessel without which none of this would be possible. In perceiving the musical microcosm, our bodies subconsciously internalize and integrate unfathomable quantities of sonic information to produce simple intuitive responses of appreciation or disapproval. Depending on our macrocosmic informants, the cultural operating systems driving and sustaining our ego-identity, we can get in touch with a variety of internal, emotional and psychological responses.

Appreciation for musical harmony is a fundamentally inward process, even though the audible signals may come from outside of us. Through listening and processing, the inner world of the psyche potentially develops and produces a coherent response to the music. Creative and embodied responses to sound represent an outward flow from our inner process to the world at large. By stepping into an active, creative role as the artist-shaman-healer, we can join consciously in the processes of memetic mutation and give birth to new musical entities. Liberating ourselves from the cultural inheritance of our nuclear and extended family, we can branch out and explore new domains of the imagination, arriving at an individual aesthetic pallet that allows for conscious synthesis of the memetic codes of our choice. In birthing new musical forms, we become the caretakers and stewards of that memetic mutation. Creative artists explore this invisible landscape of the imagination and enjoy the unique privilege of restructuring it in whatever way they please.

The role of the artist and musician is not only one of microcosmic engineering, but also of social networking and memetic propagation. When new memes are formulated in an individual’s mind and then released into the collective ideosphere by way of art, they take on a life of their own, jumping from one host to the next and binding to the receptive edges of compatible memetic structures. Their goal seems to be the creation of increasingly complex mental and cultural entities. If they fail to bind and replicate through pre-existing structures, these memes have nowhere to go and will dissolve back into the mental ether. This survival impetus creates the incentive for aggressive, memetic self-propagation. An unfathomably rich tapestry of memetic programming underlies the ego-identities of all human culture, including but not limited to Western civilization. When memetic structures become sufficiently robust, it is as if they develop an archetypal power or spiritual body that is imbued with what we would typically call consciousness. These memetic spirits, having a life of their own, operate through the mind and in the case of larval states of human consciousness may even be largely responsible for directing an individual’s actions according to their own whims.

Once released into the collective psyche, these spiritual artifacts take on an autonomous existence, binding to the receptive inlets of other people’s established memetic structures. Like a virus, the meme is aggressively self-interested and potentially infiltrates the subconscious, whether we like it or not. The degree of change it exerts upon our worldview depends upon its own nature and the flexibility of our dominant socio-cultural biases. In less negative terms, the meme is an effective way of shifting an individual’s psycho-spiritual disposition toward a more desirable state of being, and the musical theme represents the conjunct application of musical and mythic memetics to the healing arts.

Choosing the blessing way, we can nurture those blueprints that spell happiness and personal growth for all sentient beings. Deviations from the intention of support and empowerment can generate negative karma that manifests in unstable states of mind and distress, a warping of our connection to the precious and sacred source of our creativity, leading to internal confusion, anxiety, and suffering, not to mention the witless undermining and destruction of our precious open-ended human potential. Thus the best way to defeat our enemies, as taught by all the wisdom traditions, is to generate compassion and unconditional love, coupled with the strength to protect oneself from their negative influences.

This translates musically as the appropriate use of dissonance in relation to consonance, and mythically/astrologically, as the willingness to locate the gifts inherent in our most challenging personal planetary and zodiacal configurations. Furthermore, it means a relativistic model of the cosmos, where the forces of good and evil hang in the balance, neither one exerting inordinate power over the other. All forms are ultimately empty and devoid of intrinsic meaning, but relative to one another and in relationship to an attentive, sensitive human mind, they acquire an abundance of individualized meaning. It is as if our task in life is to uncover, explore, and integrate as many qualitatively different states of being as we see fit in our search for and attainment of happiness. We thereby endlessly, actively explore the boundless frontier of musical harmony as a microcosmic harmonization with divine, cosmic order and the totality of existence. This exploration when wisely conducted opens up our infinite, yet so often barely tapped, capacities for delight, bliss, joy and fulfillment, all of which by their very nature serve to bring us more and more into phase with our innate, infinite intelligence.  


Teaser image by kladcat, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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