# Are we running out of new songs?

The more I listen to music, and especially to the average radio station, the more I wonder whether I’ve heard a certain melody in another song before. Makes sense, I thought, there’s only a finite number of notes, so there can only be a finite number of songs. So the frightening fact is that the question is not if we’ll run out of new songs but when? And for simplification reasons, I’m just talking about the regular pop and rock song. Sure, one can theoretically combine any note with any other note for an infinite number of times, but who will listen to that? I know of course that there’s more to song than just the melody but nobody will doubt that if there are two identical melodies the songs can’t be too different…

How many songs can be written in theory, and how many have already been written in human history? With the ever decreasing number of possibilities, are cases of plagiarism, whether intentional or not, increasing? Please tell me there’s much more new music to come, otherwise I’ll sell my Time Warner shares.

Al,

Munich/Germany

The answer is probably in the same order of magnitude as when we’ll run out of books to write.

If we consider a singular melody with no chords, second instruments, including percussion, and we allow for two octaves worth of notes (24), a One note melody gives us 24 possibilities. A Two note melody is 24^2 possibilities. A Three note melody is 24^3, …

At 120 bpm (slightly fast, probably typical of radio music), I can squeeze 720 eighth notes into a 3 minute song. So just for a melody alone, the number of possibilities is 24^720, an enormous number (approximately 1 with 1,000 zeros after it).

Now, music involves a lot of repetition at many different levels, plus you probably wouldn’t use all of those notes, plus the differences between notes gets complex, so to have a good sounding melody, the number would be considerably smaller. Let’s pretend it’s a trillion times smaller. Now we’re down to 1 with 991 zeros after it. And this isn’t even counting multiple instruments, etc.

I think it’s safe to say that we’ll have music for the rest of the year at least.

I’ll let someone else propose the Monkeys-with-Pianos-to-Backstreet-Boys connection.

Does that mean that an infinite number of Backstreet-Boys composing away on an infinite number of music sheets can write all the great songs?

-Dragwyr
“If God had meant for man to eat waffles,
he would have given him lips like snowshoes”
-Rev. Billy C. Wirtz

Perhaps this says more about playlisting on commercial radio? I can see that a controller would be tempted to play more songs similar to ones that had been popular before, after all innovating is a sure way to attract criticism, which might endager the advertising revenues.

But certainly at the moment there does appear to be far too much music rehashing the 60’s and 70’s - i just heard the latest Oasis tune, and Paul McCartney should definitely be having words with his lawyers.

*Dragwyr: Does that mean that an infinite number of Backstreet-Boys composing away on an infinite number of music sheets can write all the great songs? *

## Actually, an infinite number of Backstreet-Boys composing away on an infinite number of music sheets would still produce crap.

Wrong thinking is punished, right thinking is just as swiftly rewarded. You’ll find it an effective combination.

I like what my art teacher said. “There is no new art, it’s all been done before.”

Quote–there’s only a finite number of notes, so there can only be a finite number of songs–sounds good, but no cigar. You are merely hearing the same chord progressions in a lot of songs today. As for there only being 12 notes, this is true in western music scales. However, the gap doesn’t have to be cut in twelve pieces. I have a friend (Steve Vai) that came up with a scale divided from a system of 18 notes(octave to octave). I’m working on one too.

If at first you don’t succeed you’re about average.

Wow. What a name-drop! “I have a friend (Steve Vai)”… Hey, tell him he was great in ‘Crossroads’ as the evil guitar player.

Complicating the discussion is that many popular songs are written with a certain structure that tends to reproduce a similar ‘sound’. For instance, songs built around standard blues progressions will have a similar sound, within that similarity there are trillions of combinations of possible melodies. Similarly, a lot of songs will have a similar beat behind them, which tends to make them sound the same. The ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ can be heard on dozens of songs, but each one is unique. Still, in listening to them there is a familial sound.

Even his quote has been done before:

“Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before…” Eccleasiastes 3:15 (NIV)

Wouldn’t they produce nothing because they’re one of those bands that don’t write any of their own music? But an infinite number of monkeys might compose all the Backstreet Boys songs. In fact, they’d probably come up with better stuff.

Even his quote has been done before:

“Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before…” Eccleasiastes 3:15 (NIV)

Wouldn’t they produce nothing because they’re one of those bands that doesn’t write any of their own music? But an infinite number of monkeys might compose all the Backstreet Boys songs. In fact, they’d probably come up with better stuff.

Now that’s ironic… Really, I didn’t mean to do that.

Oh, and if we’re talking about Monkees instead of monkeys, all bets are off.

I don’t know about music, but it looks like Hollywood ran out of original film scripts in about 1972.

Seriously, though. There’s long been a theory that catchy tunes are so because they induce a particular “resonance” (or something like that) in the human brain. There may be a finite number of resonances to which the brain responds.

But then again, I love the Butthole Surfers, and my neighbors obviously don’t (at least at 3 am). No accounting for taste, I guess.