Testing memes

The Beethoven Experiment

Among the many criticisms of memetics is the repeated accusation that the theory is circular – that what makes a good meme is that it spreads, and it spreads because it is a good meme. The same circularity has been easily broken in biology by appropriate experiments. We, in our informal ‘memelab’ group, wanted to do the same for memes.

The critics’ favourite example is the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, which have spread as though they have an independent existence all across the globe in cultures where the whole symphony is scarcely heard. Wilson (1999) asks “What do we gain by thinking of the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony as a powerful meme? … The ability to define fitness independently of what evolves saves the concept of natural selection from being a tautology. For the meme concept to escape the same problem, we must define cultural fitness independently of what evolves. If the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth is a powerful meme only because it is common, we have achieved no insight.” (1999, p 206).

I agree. So what is fitness for a short melody? It is the ability to survive and reproduce, which in terms of music means being copied, stored and reproduced more frequently than other melodies. This ability certainly ought to be measurable independently of how common the melody is.

Inspired by Wilson’s criticism, Larry Bull, Nick Rose and I tried to find out. We chose the first four notes of three other well-known symphonies as comparison, and tested children aged between 4 and 8 hoping to catch them before they were familiar with this music. They could press four keys to play any of the tunes in any order and as often as they liked until they got bored, and we asked them which they liked best and which they had heard before.

We predicted that the children would play the Beethoven more often than any other (thus giving it more chances of being copied) even if they did not like it best. The experiment entirely failed because we could not find children old enough to do the task but naïve to the music. Indeed one five year old said he knew all of the tunes because he’d heard them in Peter and the Wolf.

Nevertheless, the principle remains that, as happens in biology, it should be possible to measure the ability of memes to survive and reproduce independently of how common they are, to understand their behaviour, and to predict how they will perform in new environments.