Music, memory and protest

Book cover of the Revolutionary Temper

I am reading The Revolutionary Temper by Robert Darnton. It is a history book about the popular experience of the pre-French Revolution period. It is an odd book in a sense that it is about tracing and tracking how sentiment shifted in Paris as events occured. This is done by researching poems, songs and pamphlets that were shared on the streets and in the cafes of Paris.

Songs matter to memory

One point that is made is how people knew the tunes of many songs and that new lyrics were rapidly created and shared as events happened. The melodies and rhythms stayed the same but the words changed.

This reminded me of some memory research from the 1990’s.

Memorabeatlia: A naturalistic study of long-term memory by Hyman and Rubin. It was a small project on testing how songs and lyrics are remembered.

That research is about long term memory and recall of established sets of lyrics. That is different to the 18th Centrury Paris example of new lyrics and old songs. However, what is a link is how the sound (the melodies and so on) act as constraints and structures for memory. In the paper, it is the music of the Beatles that enables better recall of the lyrics because it shows what word could fit in that time and what syllables it must have to scan and rhyme. This is the surface structure constraint mentioned in the research discussion.

In the Beatles’ songs, as in most music and poetry, the surface
structure constraints are stressed and work with the meaning
constraints. Other material in which the surface structure
is important and could be predicted to affect recall
includes political speeches, jokes and puns, and advertisements.

From Discussion in Memorabeatlia

Memory holds ideas because we encase them in patterns of art and media.

This was true for the Parisians sharing dissent before their revolution in songs, true for students remembering the lyrics of Revolver and true now for people sharing memes and TikToks.

Those kids and their memes? It’s the same human behaviour as 18th Century Parisians.

It’s not new, it’s ancient.

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