Sampling, remixing and mashups make some people angry. A lot of people think that repurposing existing ideas is bad, that it’s lazy, or a form of stealing. We value originality highly. Should we? My own experience of music making is that there are no original ideas. There are novel combinations of old ideas, but it’s neither possible nor desirable to make a genuinely new and unprecedented piece of music. If you want to hear truly original music, bang randomly on a piano keyboard. You’ll be playing something new and unprecedented, but it probably won’t be something you’d want to hear twice.
There’s a group of evolutionary biologists who think that our ideas, beliefs and behaviors are evolving according to the same rules of natural selection as our genomes. Susan Blackmore’s theory of memes draws an analogy between the way songs replicate themselves using musicians as hosts and the the way that genes for purple feathers use finches as hosts. My experience confirms her theory strongly. Musical ideas come over me. I don’t “create” them. Writing a song is like making breakfast. I have an urge to make breakfast, and based on that urge and what I have in my kitchen, breakfast emerges. I can make breakfast while half-asleep and barely even conscious of what I’m doing. Songwriting works exactly the same way. It emerges out the collective social consciousness, spontaneously and usually with little intentional input from the musicians involved.
The meme theory of music takes some getting used to. It’s conventional for us to imagine that we control our ideas and use them to our benefit. The reality is that ideas have a life of their own. Sometimes having an idea benefits you. Sometimes it harms you. Evolutionary biology is full of illuminating parallels. The relationship between musicians and songs is like the relationship between figs and fig wasps. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, but very often it’s mutually parasitic, with each side mindlessly exploiting the other for short-term benefit. It seems to be mostly a matter of luck who benefits from musical ideas. The memes have rewarded Björk and Lil Wayne with money, fame, critical adulation and, I imagine, a sense of personal satisfaction. The memes mostly rewarded Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker with material hardship, social ostracism and ill health.
If I’m going to sit down and write a song, it works best if I relax and let the memes themselves do the work. It’s mostly a matter of being relaxed and in the moment. Whenever my brain isn’t busy, it occupies itself by playing fragments of tunes, turning and twisting them, sometimes finding new combinations, sometimes just looping some phrase over and over. Your brain probably does this too; it seems to be a human universal. People mostly just ignore these little tunes as they come and go, or whistle them absently, or hum them, or tap them out with their fingertips. To be a musician, the challenge is to pay attention to your memes, and to memorize or otherwise store the interesting ones as they flicker in and out of awareness. Repeating them to yourself helps, since rehearsal is the way that short-term memories gets turned into long-term ones. As the neurobiologists like to say, neurons that fire together, wire together.
I’m an experienced enough musician that I can compose a song entirely in my head or on paper. It works better, though, to involve the rest of my body in the process. I get the best results if I start with my voice, or tapping my foot, or putting my fingers down on an instrument, since the brain does a lot of its thinking with the motor areas. It works even better to get an instrumental track together and then improvise over it while recording. Songwriting by jamming, playing around, tossing an idea around in a repetitive way, alone or with some people I know well — these are all highly effective strategies. I mostly want my prefrontal cortex out of the way for this efflorescence of ideas. I only bring my full consciousness to bear later for the pruning: the editing, the rejection of possibilities and alternatives.
If it’s not the musician’s conscious mind that’s having the ideas, where do they come from? The evolution people say that the memes assemble themselves in our heads, the way embryos self-assemble in the womb or egg, following whatever combination of genetic instructions are floating around. Every piece of music shares the same basic set of melodic and rhythmic motifs, scales, and chord progressions with most of the other music of its time and place. Different Mozart sonatas all operate within the tight stylistic constraints of Baroque-era Europe. Different Wu-Tang Clan tracks all operate within the tight stylistic constraints of nineties East Coast hip-hop. All musical memes are unique, the way all humans and marine snails are, but like humans and marine snails, all pieces of music are narrow variations on pre-existing and broadly similar themes.
In recent years and in Western countries, we have this rule that if you write a meme down first and copyright it, then you own it. This system has a lot of problems. What the composers are writing down is a collage, an amalgamation of whatever tunes they’ve been hearing a lot lately. Jonathan Lethem’s entertaining essay called The Ecstasy Of Influence is both an eloquent presentation of the meme theory and a test case in and of itself, since it’s comprised entirely of quotations and paraphrases of other writers’ ideas. This blog post that I’m writing is an amalgamation of Jonathan Lethem’s and Susan Blackmore’s ideas. My “original” tunes are an amalgamation of whatever has been getting the most airplay in my environment. For any musician, you can see the source of all of their ideas in their record collection or local folk tradition or church hymnal. It’s impossible to accurately and meaningfully separate a single person’s ideas from the memetic environment. All inspiration is based on imitation.
You might be thinking, okay, maybe there’s no originality in popular or folk music, in the middle of the road, within genres. But what about the real mavericks and weirdos? What about Thelonious Monk, Bill Monroe, Igor Stravinsky, Sonic Youth or Cecil Taylor? I would say, even the mavericks are imitating. The avant-gardists and adventurers are floating in a smaller and more personally-defined memepool than the rest of us, but no one operates in isolation. Thelonious Monk had nearly all of his ideas in the context of a small set of song forms borrowed from showtunes and blues. Bill Monroe was effectively fusing two existing genres, appalachian and blues, and all of his songs follow a narrow set of conventions, though it’s a regionally idiosyncratic set for sure. All musicians have their community of inspirations and critics, even if it’s a small circle.
Okay, fine, you say, everybody is plagiarizing from everybody, but we can agree that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday,” right? Even if that just means it happened to coalesce in his head first and not in someone else’s? I would say, that’s not what we usually mean by writing anymore. A more accurate word for this activity is transcribing. We don’t think of court stenographers as writing the trial. Composition is basically just transcribing the contents of your unconscious. Paul McCartney says the chords and melody to “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. He woke up, rolled over, grabbed his guitar and his notebook, and out it came. Everybody has cool ideas in dreams; what makes Paul McCartney special is that he keeps a guitar and a notebook next to his bed, so he’s able to get this kind of gift from the memes under his fingers, rehearsed into long-term memory and written safely in the notebook in the brief interval before it dissipates irretrievably. How many people are that careful to keep records of their thoughts? I’ll bet if you know anyone who’s that attentive to themselves, they’re probably really good at creative work.
The most creative musicians are the ones who crank out lots and lots of new combinations of their existing memes. The more combinations you try, the more likely you are to find a successful one. The mediocre musicians I know are usually very hung up on a small set of ideas that they fiddle with incessantly. The really good ones crank out a song in a few hours and move on. There’s nothing wrong with polishing up and refining a successful idea, but to get to that successful idea, the best strategy is to try out a lot of diverse variations and let them battle it out for your scarce attentional resources.