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View Full Version : Why Haven't We Run Out of New Music?


Nobody Special
12-03-2008, 12:04 PM
I recall reading a letter to the editor of Rolling Stone from around 1968 in which the author said he'd done the math and determined that, at the current rate of production, we'd run out of new music in three years.

Obviously his math was wrong, but as my knowledge of music has grown, it does seem to make sense that the number of pleasant-sounding combinations of notes must have some limit.

On the face of it, it appears that after playing the first note, one can choose any of eight notes next in a number of different octaves, but for practical purposes, it's unlikely that a D5 would sound pleasant when played after a C3. For that matter, a 1 is most likely to be followed by it's 4th or 5th than it's 2nd, 3rd, 6th or 7th. It would be extraordinarily difficult to write a large collection of pleasing music composed mostly of dissonant notes.

Further limiting the number of potential songs is that many combinations of notes may simply be a previous song in a different key.

This also raises the question of what makes one song different from another? For example, the other day I was trying to teach myself to play the Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide" on guitar but had trouble getting the timing right and wound up playing the Iron and Wine version of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights" instead, because both song are composed using the same notes.

picker
12-03-2008, 12:35 PM
umm, you also have potential variation in rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, arrangement and production, to name a few other areas of compositional latitude.

Music ain't just melody my friend.

the possibilities are infinite.

Ethilrist
12-03-2008, 12:43 PM
We already have run out. (http://youtube.com/watch?v=JdxkVQy7QLM) People just don't seem to mind.

Exapno Mapcase
12-03-2008, 12:44 PM
The obvious reply from anyone who was reading Roling Stone in the 60s is that we have run out of new music. :smack:

But I remember reading something similar, except that it wasn't a number like three years but something much longer. Nobody paid much attention at the time. What's considered music and pleasant are terms too slippery for the notion to have much traction in the future, either.

It's obviously true that lots of bits of rock music sound alike. It's also true that most full songs are easily distinguishable. No good reason to think that's going to change anytime soon.

GorillaMan
12-03-2008, 12:45 PM
Firstly, keep the analysis of choosing subsequent notes simpler. Choose 20 consecutive notes, using only a one-octave major scale. The number of possible combinations? 8 x 8 x 8 x 8 x .... = lots. Over a billion trillion. That's just a twenty-note melody. Quite a lot of them will sound rubbish, but even if only, say, a billionth sound good, that's still a trillion simple little melodies.

Then think about how many other ways music is varied. Chords. Rhythm. Speed. Instrumentation and scoring. Lyrics. And if you want to stray away from pop/rock/blues song genres, everything changes all the more, using different harmonic systems, completely different forms and structures, other instruments....

Mindfield
12-03-2008, 12:47 PM
Music isn't merely the sum of its parts. A claim that we will "run out of music" is like saying we'll run out of art, or car designs, or literature. It's a silly assertion to make. There are countless variables that go into the creation of a given piece of music, of which the notes used only make up a small part. What instrument(s) play them, how they play them, the order in which they play them, the key they are played in, the time signature the song exists in, the other instruments and the notes they play, and so on and so forth, all play a part.

I suppose it's concievable that, all things being equal, all possible combinations of pleasant-sounding notes have been used in one form or another -- but that doesn't mean we've "run out of music", as there are plenty of ways to express every combination of pleasant-sounding notes such that it makes each song different.

NAF1138
12-03-2008, 12:48 PM
umm, you also have potential variation in rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, arrangement and production, to name a few other areas of compositional latitude.

Music ain't just melody my friend.

the possibilities are infinite.

Exactly. For example The Pixies Song Where is My Mind? (http://youtube.com/watch?v=BDcjemEqr1o) (youtube link) and the Weezer Song Say It Ain't So (http://youtube.com/watch?v=YU7LZts87Zg) (Youtube Link) are the exact same song if you are going just by chord structure (and not counting each songs bridge.) But they don't sound anything alike. The difference is rythm, harmony and tempo.

There are dozens of little bits that make up a song, and just playing around with your 12 basic tones chromatically you can produce thousands of combinations. At least ten different scales (Pentatonic major and minor, the various modal [Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolian, and Locrian] scales, and a straight chromatic scale) each with it's own sound and use. Each of these scales can be used as the basis for hundreds of chord combinations, and can themselves be combined to create thousands more. And that's if you keep everything the same and only change the chord structure. When you introduce rythm and instrument voicing and arrangements...

MikeS
12-03-2008, 02:08 PM
Leonard Bernstein once made the same point in his book The Infinite Variety of Music. Here's the pertinent passage. (http://books.google.com/books?id=iUcyva1FEz4C&pg=PA29&lpg=PP1&dq=infinite+variety+of+music&output=html) He manages to get to thousands of googols (!) of possible tunes before deciding that we'll never "run out". Granted, a lot of the stuff he's counting would sound like a cat walking upon a piano keyboard, but there's still an awful lot of possibilities.

Toxylon
12-03-2008, 02:35 PM
I have heard a tiny speck of a fraction of the popular music published since, say 1950, yet even I hear lots of more or less plagiarized, copied, rewarmed or boldly sampled stuff whenever I listen to current music for a while. This tells me there must be very little truly new music coming out today, Western popular music-wise (it must be even more prevalent in any ethnic music scene).

Notes and sounds can be varied almost infinitely, but just a miniscule whiff of all the possible combinations sound good to our ears.

NAF1138
12-03-2008, 02:53 PM
I have heard a tiny speck of a fraction of the popular music published since, say 1950, yet even I hear lots of more or less plagiarized, copied, rewarmed or boldly sampled stuff whenever I listen to current music for a while. This tells me there must be very little truly new music coming out today, Western popular music-wise (it must be even more prevalent in any ethnic music scene).

Notes and sounds can be varied almost infinitely, but just a miniscule whiff of all the possible combinations sound good to our ears.

Not true. It isn't that only a few sound good, it is rather that few people have the auditory imagination necessary to come up with new ideas.

You might as well say that we will all run out of stories because so few combinations of letters sound like interesting ideas together. We may run out of stories, but that is the fault of the storytellers not the alphabet.

ParentalAdvisory
12-03-2008, 03:35 PM
http://youtube.com/watch?v=akGRWdkAxhI

Just thought I'd throw that up.

Roadfood
12-03-2008, 03:35 PM
It seems to me (especially since this is GQ) that to treat this question fairly you really need to approach it in two ways. One is the question of how many basic melodies can there be; this, I think, could be reasonably computed, if someone really put their mind to it, made some reasonable simplifications (like maybe restricting to one octave?), but still allowed for the different possible time signatures and note and timing combinations, and did something reasonable to restrict the results to "pleasing" combinations (having, of course, to first come up with some reasonable definition of that).

The second approach, which is what most here seem to be doing, is to include all the possible variations on some particular basic melody, accounting for differences in rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, arrangement, instruments, etc.

I mean, I collect versions of the song "Pipeline". I think I have about thirty. They are all quite distinctly different, but they are also clearly recognizable as having the same basic melody. For the purposes of the OP, do you count them as thirty different songs, or as one song with thirty variations?

GorillaMan
12-03-2008, 03:46 PM
I have heard a tiny speck of a fraction of the popular music published since, say 1950, yet even I hear lots of more or less plagiarized, copied, rewarmed or boldly sampled stuff whenever I listen to current music for a while. This tells me there must be very little truly new music coming out today, Western popular music-wise (it must be even more prevalent in any ethnic music scene).
My bolding - what makes you assume that?

scm1001
12-03-2008, 04:14 PM
I heard a few years ago of a computer that generated tens of thousands of decent tunes, then they were copyrighted in order to make revenue off any real songwriters later. Not sure if that went anywhere

Neidhart
12-04-2008, 06:48 AM
The Spider Robinson story Melancholy Elephants (http://spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html) is about this very issue!

minlokwat
12-04-2008, 07:59 AM
It would be extraordinarily difficult to write a large collection of pleasing music composed mostly of dissonant notes.

I believe the entire Yoko Ono anthology proves this is not so.

Oh, wait. You said "pleasing". And I suppose we would also have to redefine "music" so never mind.

No linky for fear of having membership irreversibly revoked.

Fake Tales of San Francisco
12-04-2008, 09:41 AM
Perception of dissonance has changed a lot as music has evolved. Note intervals we hear as consonant in years gone by were heard as dissonant. For example, perfect 4th's were seen as dissonant in harmony, and needed to be resolved, today they are considered consonant. You can also see this in ethical music, where to a westerners ears sounds of the east can sound unusual and dissonant.

You've also got a great example that emerged in the 50's I think - distortion, namely on the electric guitar. To many elderly people, in my experience, the sounds of modern rock really are just 'noise'. I don't think this is just hearing deficiencies, it's part and parcel of our evolving perception of dissonant sounds.

As time goes on, I believe our perception of dissonance will continue to change and that when these generations are grey and old, we'll be complaining about the next generations' 'noise'.
This means that we cannot run out of new music, as well as the points made above. There's always going to be a new perception of sound.

minlokwat
12-04-2008, 10:37 AM
As time goes on, I believe our perception of dissonance will continue to change
Yes, but Yoko Ono will continue to suck for them too.

Exapno Mapcase
12-04-2008, 11:14 AM
You can also see this in ethical music, where to a westerners ears sounds of the east can sound unusual and dissonant.
I thought the whole point of rock was to rid the world of "ethical" music. :)

DooWahDiddy
12-04-2008, 12:47 PM
On the face of it, it appears that after playing the first note, one can choose any of eight notes next in a number of different octaves...

Eight? You mean twelve.

Darth Nader
12-04-2008, 01:45 PM
The Spider Robinson story Melancholy Elephants (http://spiderrobinson.com/melancholyelephants.html) is about this very issue!

It's really hard to come up with a new cute mouse these days.

Spider was right.

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