I was sitting the other day, fiddling around on my guitar, and happened upon a cool little riff. I showed it to one of my friends and he told me it reminded him of another song and showed me. Given two or three notes, the riff was basically the same. I had never heard the song before.
This got me thinking.
Why does this occur when the possibilities within the music itself is infinite? Is it infinite? There are only a few sound frequencies our ears can distinguish; and it only takes a few notes to link two musical ideas and make them sound alike, will we ever run out of new music? Why are there so many commonalities between songs? Even spanning hundreds, and hundreds, of years, how come so many songs kind of sound the same? WHO AM I?
So, I decided to do some digging.
I stumbled upon a very informative YouTube video that I will take the liberty of quoting extensively. In this video, Michael of Vsauce elaborates for us:
“… digital music is made out of “bits”. Lots, and lots, of bits. But, each individual bit exists in one of two states: a “0″ or a “1″. Now, what this means is that for any given, say, 5-minute-long audio file, the number of possibilities, mathematically speaking, is enormous, but mind-blowingly finite. A compact disk which samples music at 44.1 khz is going to need about 211 million bits to store one 5-minute song. And because a bit can exist in two states, the number of possible different ways to arrange those 211 million bits is 2 to the 211th million power. That value represents every single possible different 5-minute-long audio file. But, how big is that number? Here’s some perspective: A single drop of water contains 6 sextillion atoms. 6 sextillion is 22 digits long. That’s a long number, but the total number of atoms that make up the entire Earth is a number that is about 50 digits long. And, estimation of the total number of hydrogen atoms in our universe is a number that is 80 digits long… but “2 to the 211 millionth power,” is a number that is 63 million digits long. IT is a number larger than we can even pretend to understand. It contains every possible CD quality 5-minute audio file. Inside that amount is everything from Beethoven’s “5th” to Beck’s “Loser” – it even contains a 5 minute conversation you had with your parents when you were 3 years old. In fact, every one of them. It even contains every possible conversation you didn’t have with your parents when you were 3 years old. But, it is finite, not infinite.”
While all that jazz is pretty interesting to know, it still doesn’t answer my question. Will there ever come a time, where every possible pairing has been done? Will we ever run out of new music? How many possible songs are we capable of? Why the glob do our songs sound the same!?
…on Everything2, Ferrouslepidoptera made a calculation that involved some assumptions that help narrow the field down a bit. She took a look at the total number of possible different melodies you could create within one octave, containing any or all of the intervals we divide octaves into. Of course, sound frequencies can be divided much more granular than that, but giving ourselves more notes might mean we could make more technically different melodies, but they wouldn’t necessarily sound any different to our ears. Now, given a single measure containing any combination of whole, half, quarter, eight, sixteenth, or thirty-second notes, she calculated that there would be 123,511,210,975,209,861,511,554,928,715,787,036 possible unique measures. It is a smaller number than we had before, but, to put it in perspective, this: 432,329,886,000,000,000 to 9 significant figures is roughly how old the universe is in seconds. Another calculation by Yerricde, is even more specific. He stayed within one octave, but instead of looking at a complete measure he only considered the number of unique combinations of 8 notes. He also assumed that typical melodies, as we know them today, only contain about three different types of note length. For instance: Quarter, eighth, and sixteenth; or, whole, half, and quarter. To be sure, that will most likely not always be true. Musical tastes hundreds, thousands, of years from now will most assuredly be different. But, given melodies as we know them today, across 8 notes, over 12 intervals, there are approximately 78,364,164,096 possible combinations.
Well, that’s a little more like it! Thanks Michael! There are approximately 78,364,164,096 possible combinations… 78 billion possible combinations… so, we now know that there are in fact a limited number of combinations possible… but… that number is pretty big – why is it then that we have such commonalities in music all across the board? For instance, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the “Alphabet Song,” and “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” all have the same melody. If there are that many possible combinations, why does “Love Me Tender” by Elvis Presley the same as “Aura Lea”? Why does Taylor Swifts “Haunted” progression sound just like Coldplay’s “The Scientist” which in turn, both sound like “Zombie” from The Cranberries? I don’t think they are necessarily ripping each other off, though I wouldn’t completely rule that out; but there’s something going on here we aren’t seeing. I mean it’s not only that specific – an alarming number of songs just “sound” like other songs. The Spongebob Squarepants theme cadences quite similarly to “Blow the Man Down” and when it comes to chords… hah there is no variety at all. I remember my songwriting professor last semester mentioning the “4 magical chords to a successful song” which made me think why the hell would I want to use the same four chords everyone else is using? check out this interesting bit by Axis of Awesome on those “magical” 4 chords.
There is something psychologically pulling us towards these same patterns. Obviously, as we all know; we are influenced by what came before – that’s alright but with such a gargantuan number of melodic possibilities, why is it all the same? You could even look at the lyrics. Mathematically speaking, there are more possibilities than we could ever exhaust, yet in many… MANY songs… dare I say all?.. We use the poetic meter known as “Common Meter” or “Ballad Meter”
“The common meter, or ballad meter, is a poetic rhythm which is, naturally, very common. For the metrically inclined, it consists of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter (although, especially where hymns are concerned, “iambic” is not an absolute requirement). For those of us who only speak English, it consists of alternating lines of four and three stressed syllables. Abbreviated CM. There is also Common Meter Double (CMD), which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
It’s used in a number of well-known songs and poems, and as a result, you can swap the lyrics and tunes around, often to amusing effect. Some of the best One Song To The Tune Of Another rounds on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue have done this (others have deliberately chosen songs with completely different meters to make it more difficult).”
The meter we are referring to goes as follows:
Line 1 = 8 syllables, A
Line 2 = 6 syllables, B
Line 3 = 8 syllables, iambic
Line 4 = 6 syllables, B
Is that the secret to writing a “timeless” song? Use the 4 chords, common meter, and voila. Done? There has to be more to songwriting than that…. right? The overuse of this meter is the reason you can sing the Pokemon Theme Song to the tune of Gilligan’s Island… or House of the Rising Sun… or Amazing Grace. Sure, the melodies differ, but if you don’t believe me – try it, sing along.
Now, while I don’t think that it just takes those elements to make a timeless masterpiece, it intrigues me that out of all the possibilities, human kind has chosen to use these and stick with them. Even without knowing it.
Now, many will argue that across genre’s they do not sound the same. But I’m sure with some digging you will find that they indeed do.
What is it within us that is limiting us to exploring the vastness of music? Is it that these patterns and themes discovered centuries ago, remind us of “home”? Is it our own internal laziness that stops us from venturing in to this finite, yet seemingly infinite, realm of possibilities? Or do we just enjoy these certain patterns and melodies too much to even care about what else is out there? Is it due to the fact that you have listened to these songs since you were a child, so the form of it is buried deep within your subconscious? Will there ever be a time where “new” music is made?
Feel free to leave your comments – or – post in the forum here.