• June 23, 2011
    Your Guide to the Musical Afterlife

    by Dr. Greg Wilder

    One of the most fascinating reasons to study musical language is to try and develop an understanding of the influence certain pieces of music can have on the greater musical and cultural landscape over time. Every avid musical listener intuitively thinks about this and musicologists constantly offer up observations and personal points of view.

    But what exactly is it that makes certain musical ideas worth repeating over others? Why are some musical hooks and patterns ultimately more successful than others? Are there core musical shapes that attach our to reptilian brain and don’t let go?

    Denis Dutton presented a number of interesting related observations during a TED talk in 2010 entitled, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty.”

    The “Book of the Dead” (or “Book of Emerging Into Light”) is a set of ancient Egyptian funerary texts — books of spells designed to guide the recently deceased into the afterlife. In a recent address, noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggested that DNA essentially serves as a genetic “Book of the Dead” — a tried-and-true manual for survival against parasites and other environmental hazards responsible for shaping us into the adaptive creatures we are today. And I suspect musical ideas (especially the most successful patterns that stand the test of time) share this property.

    Book of the Dead

    A page from an Egyptian guide to the afterlife. Lucky for me, illustrations are included...

    Given the unprecedented depth of Clio’s musical awareness and the millions of tracks Clio’s now listening to, it’s likely that this treasure-trove of data will help illuminate and uncover the most interesting and essential musical DNA preserved in our musical culture — Clio’s personal guide to music’s potential afterlife.

    While not its primary function or purpose, it seems that tracking the evolution of musical ideas (as filtered through culture) may be one of the most powerful and far-reaching applications of this new approach to music analysis.