Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-Out Rhymes

Synopsis

This book applies the methods and theories of cognitive psychology to the study of oral traditions. Rubin elaborates on three structural devices that appear in oral traditions: those consisting of meaning, those using imagery, and those in which sound pattern is predominant. Next, the way in which these and other constraints fit together is examined. The processes of transmission and recall are then considered. Three genres are considered as different applications of the principles outlined in the book. For two of these -- counting-out rhymes and ballads -- original studies are reported. For the third -- epic -- new analyses of existing data are reported.

Excerpt

I proposed writing this book in 1983, because by then I believed that I understood the phenomenon of gesture sufficiently well to expound upon it at length. No doubt this self-deception served a useful purpose. I doubt now that I would have set out on a project of such vastness if I had known that it would take nearly ten years to finish.

McNeill, 1992, p. 5

Our parents have graciously agreed to take responsibility for any mistakes remaining in the book.

Moulton &Robinson, 1981, p. xvi

In 1977 Leo Treitler invited me to take part in a roundtable, "Transmission and Form in Oral Traditions," at the Twelfth Congress of the International Musicological Society. There I learned how Gregorian chant, jazz, and other forms of music were handed down through memory with continual variation, but without large, systematic changes. Musicologists documented and analyzed their material with great care and skill, but the mechanisms of transmission were not well known. For the most part, musicologists did not know that psychologists knew anything useful about memory, and psychologists did not know that musicologists had exquisitely analyzed an impressive feat of memory. I read further in the interdisciplinary field of oral traditions and found theoretical speculations about narrative structure and imagery that paralleled those in psychology. the mutual ignorance held the promise of double-blind, converging evidence and increased theoretical sophistication. Here was a highly efficient way to increase our understanding both of oral traditions and of human memory. What we knew about memory from the theories and methods of cognitive psychology came mostly from people and situations in which memory performance was not impressive. Here was a case where memory worked extraordinarily well. As soon as I got tenure, I started on the project in earnest. This book is the result.

From this brief history, it follows that this book is an attempt to understand stability and change in oral traditions from the point of view of a cognitive psychologist. the goal is to increase our understanding of both oral traditions and the human memory that supports them. Oral literature is discussed from an empirical framework; that is, I write about what I can measure. Such an approach has limitations, but it provides an interesting addition to much of what has gone before.

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