In our extended discussion on the previous post about memes, kvond and I focused quite a bit of attention on whether a song is an object unto itself and, if so, what sort of object it might be. Now I’m thinking about memic dissemination. It’s been proposed that memes, like genes, propagate themselves as a means of survival and domination of the memetic environment. Memes that successfully occupy people’s brains reproduce and thrive; those that don’t, don’t. In singing the song I am presumably cooperating with the song’s agenda for spreading itself virally through brains.
Certainly the song is a cause of my listening to it and singing it, inasmuch as I would never sing or play a particular song I’ve never heard. Repetition aids learning, so the more often the song is played in my hearing, the more firmly it gets inscribed in my memory and the better I can reproduce it in performance. And the song may have affordances that attract my attention to itself: it appeals to my tastes, or it appeals to the tastes of others I hang with or admire.
But does the song want me to listen and sing? At first blush the premise seems ridiculous. Gravity is a cause of my not flying up off the ground, and gravity it attracts me to the earth, but it’s not personal, not intentional. Like gravity, a song is inanimate; it’s an abstract pattern of frequencies and intervals and rhythms: how can it want anything? I don’t believe it can. But maybe the song can serve as a conduit for conveying a human desire for me to listen to the song.
Suppose I want you to click onto one of my old posts. I could type an explicit request: please visit such-and-such a post. Or I could try enticing you by pointing out the post’s affordances: there’s something really extraordinary written in that old post that’s right up your alley. While the former tactic is more direct than the latter, they’re both indirect. I’m not forcing you to go see that old post, like gravity forces me down to the earth. Instead I’m using language as a mediator to convey my desire. And it’s not even an immediate mediation, as would be the case if we were talking face to face or over the telephone. There may be a gap of hours or days or even longer between the time I express my desire textually and the time you receive it. My message looks like a stand-alone textual “object,” but maybe it’s better to regard it as a delayed communique, conveying not just information but my desire.
A song could work the same way. The composer imbues a song with personal expressions of beauty and affect and maybe even truth, which he wants to convey through the song to the listener. For the communication to complete its circuit, the listener has to hear the song. And so the composer imbues the song with musical affordances for attracting the listener’s attention. Even if there’s a long delay in transmission, even if someone other than the composer performs the song, even if the performance is transmitted to the listener by electronic recording, even if there’s a delay of decades between composition and listening, the song still carries within itself the original communicative intent of the composer, including his desire that the song be heard. The song isn’t just an autonomous object; it’s an extension of the composer’s agency and intentionaliy. The song wants to be heard because it carries within itself the composer’s’ desire.
I recognize that this view is sort of old-fashioned. Next thing you know I’ll be proposing a hermeneutic of song that focuses not just on the song itself but on compositional intent. What is the composer saying? Among other things he’s saying this: listen to my song.