Symposium on Transmission of Tunes and Tales

May 12th-13th, 2016


We are pleased to announce the symposium Transmission of Tunes and Tales, which will take place in Amsterdam, May 12 and 13, 2016. In this symposium, we aim to focus on understanding and modeling the cultural transmission of stories and songs. Topics include the (computational) modeling of narrative contents of stories, the identity and stability of melodies in oral transmission, relationships between melody and text in singing and chanting, and so on. The symposium will demarcate the conclusion of the Tunes and Tales project, which was carried out at the Meertens Institute, Amsterdam, 2012-2016.


Thursday May 12th 2016

9.30: Registration
10.00: Opening: Sally Wyatt, programme leader of the KNAW e-Humanities Group
10.15: Keynote: Jamie Tehrani Computational models for folktale transmission
11.15: Break
11.45: Lecture: Dániel Péter Biró: Religious recitation as oral culture
12.30: Lunch
14.00: Keynote: Philip Bohlmann: Coherence of songs in oral transmission
15.00: Break and poster session
16.00: Lecture: Peter van Kranenburg: Tunes and Motifs
16.30: Lecture: Theo Meder: The Dutch Folktale Database
17.00: Drinks

Friday May 13th 2016

10.00 Keynote: Victoria Williamson: Why sticky tunes stick
11.00 Break
11.30 Lecture: Folgert Karsdorp: Why Red Riding Hood ain't what she used to be: gradual accumulation with modification in children's literature
12.00 Lecture: Martine de Bruin: The Dutch Song Database
12.30 Lunch
14.00 Poster session
14.30 Lecture: Berit Janssen: Mutating melodies: change and stability in folk songs
15.00 Lecture: Ashley Burgoyne: Individual Differences in Music Recognition
15.45 Closing act: Verteltheater Donderelf
16.30 End of the Symposium


Jamie Tehrani: On the genealogies of stories: modelling oral traditions with phylogenetics

Since the time of the Brothers Grimm, researchers have speculated that similarities among folktales told in different cultures could be explained by common descent. However, the lack of historical and literary evidence made it difficult to test this hypothesis, leave alone trace the growth and spread of storytelling lineages. Here, I will outline an approach that uses “phylogenetic comparative methods”, which were developed to reconstruct the evolution of biological organisms. I will discuss the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution, and present case studies that demonstrate how these methods can be applied to the analysis of oral transmission.

Philip Bohlman: "The Voice of the People, a Song, a Notable Phrase, a Rhyme Managed to Survive": The Moment of Song from Herder to Heroes

In Johann Gottfried Herder’s foundational work on folk song, Volkslieder (1778/79), the moment of song formed at the confluence of tunes and tales. It was at the moment of song that the human spirit was most fully voiced, that history gathered its narratives, and that the nation emerged as the site toward which the transmission of tunes and tales ultimately flowed. By publishing anthologies of folk songs and translating epics – not only the Spanish El Cid in full, but the Sanskrit Bhagavad Gita in parts – Herder introduced song into history on a global level. In the two centuries since his seminal work on song, scholars have turned to the moment of song as a site for more fully understanding the transmission of the tunes and tales that underlie the most universal narratives of history.

With my keynote in Amsterdam I myself turn to the moment of song in search of a global historiography made legible through the transmission of tunes and tales. I begin with Herder and the ontological shift brought about not only by the Enlightenment in Europe, but the ways in which global enlightenments afforded song a universal presence. In the course of the presentation, I explore the ways in which transmission itself led collectors and scholars across a vast intellectual spectrum to the moments in which new meaning accrued to song, especially in the ways it articulated the collective of the nation. The talk unfolds as an intellectual history of transmission itself, with specific moments of song from my own studies of European and Asian vernacular music history, and my ethnographic studies of folk song in North America and Europe providing case studies. If such an intellectual history can begin with the moment of song identified by Herder, it reaches at least to the contemporary moment of song in May 2016, when Måns Zelmerlöw’s “Heroes” provides the occasion for national competition among tunes and tales at the Eurovision Song Context to Sweden.

Victoria Williamson: Music memory and cultural transmission

Music is a universal and effective vehicle for the transmission of traditions, rules and inventions. All known cultures have songs to transmit ideas that underpin cultural identity. Why? Why do people so often sing stories rather than speak? In my presentation I suggest that one key reason for the survival of music as a vehicle for cultural transmission is the power of music in our memory.

I will focus on three sources of music’s memory power. Firstly, music is a recipe of structures that play to our sensory abilities, that we begin to learn before we are even born, including pitch and rhythm shapes. Secondly, music activates the brain in a unique and deep way across several key structures. This pattern may be one reason why musical memories survive when other memory functions are impaired. Thirdly, there is the pivotal but poorly understood relationship between music and movement. In particular, here we see the power of the implicit memory system, a deep connection between body and mind. Together these three ingredients (music, mind, and body) combine to create a strong memory trace, well suited to passing on key cultural ideas across time.

Call for Posters

We will organize a poster session. We invite poster contributions from Dutch and international researchers related to the theme of the conference, which may address, but are not restricted to, the following topics:

- modeling of oral variation
- variation of melodies, poetry or narratives
- melodic motifs
- narrative motifs
- relationship between melody and lyrics
- memory for melodies
- memory for narratives
- social context of narratives and songs
- cognitive aspects of cultural transmission
- computational folkloristics
- computational ethnomusicology
- retrieval systems for narratives and music
- research methodology

Please, send in your abstract (max. 300 words) by email (, including your name, affiliation, and title of the poster. The deadline for submission is April 22nd 2016.


The Symposium will take place in Perdu.


If you want to attend the symposium, please, send an email message to stating your name and affiliation. There is no fee. Lunch will be provided for those who have registered.

Organizing Committee

Theo Meder, Meertens Instituut
Peter van Kranenburg, Meertens Instituut
Folgert Karsdorp, Meertens Instituut
Berit Janssen, Meertens Instituut
The Tunes and Tales project at the Meertens Institute


Feel free to email us if you have any questions about the symposium.