Good tunes are like good viruses (“good” from the virus perspective, of course…).
Long before videos of cats playing patty cake and finger-biting infants made it cool, tunes have been going viral. Arguments about whether it’s the result of adaptive selection or an evolutionary byproduct of our linguistic capacity (a “spandrel“, in evolutionary biology terms) aside, our brains are clearly wired for music.
As such, musical memes are particularly good at spreading themselves from one brain to the next.
Good music, in other words, is memorable. We all know that a good earworm has a way of sticking inside of our minds after only one or two listens and crawling around for days, in most cases whether we like it or not.
Some think that the stickiness of musical memories may explain the prevalence of murder ballads in the music that predates mass media. Packaging these stories in musical form may have been less about celebrating the macabre than about optimizing the transmission of a noteworthy event.
It’s also worth noting that without good earworms, we surely wouldn’t have so many great tunes to play. Many of the tunes in the traditional banjo repertoire aren’t still around because they were written and preserved in written form by their creator (this is an aural tradition, after all), but rather because they were successfully passed along generation to generation from one mind to another.
Such is the case with the spread of a good “fiddle” tune. It begins modestly enough inside the mind of a single individual. But, if it’s especially virulent, if by dint of its euphonical quotient it sticks inside the minds of those it enters, and if those minds have access to other minds, then you have the recipe for a full scale epidemic.
I think we’re in the midst of an epidemic (bolstered by the access to other minds now afforded by technology) when it comes to this week’s tune, “Dull Chisel”.
Formed originally inside the mind of the late fiddler Garry Harrison and released on his album “Red Prairie Dawn” (no longer in print, but here’s a short clip of “Dull Chisel” from the album), in short order it found its way in jams and festivals all over, which is a rare thing. Most of the tunes that have become old-time jam staples are centuries old, but every now and then a tune of recent vintage and singular appeal works its way into the mix.
It’s official: Dull Chisel has gone viral. Acquire and infect at will.
aEAC#E tuning, Brainjo Level 3-4
Notes on the tab:
Notes in parentheses are “skip” notes. To learn more about these, check out my [free] video lesson on the subject.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out my complete guide on reading banjo tabs.