October 03, 2012
A friend, and amateur music theorist, wondered if we're getting to the point where all the good melodies have been used up.
Since we've been at this thing called music for a while now.
I said I'd look into it.
At last count there are seven basic notes, A, B, C, D, E, F and G but there are many octaves that these notes can be in, depending on the instrument. Counting flats and sharps, you have 12 in all to work with.
Since I was clearly out of my depth I sought some help.
Leonard Bernstein attempted to answer the question in “The Infinite Variety of Music.” Consulting with math geniuses, he figured the possible melodic combinations of those 12 notes is the following astronomical figure: one billion, three hundred and two million, sixty one thousand, three hundred and forty four without repeating any one note in any one pattern.
But enormous, as it seems, it’s still a finite number.
What I think he's saying is that, in human terms, it’s actually infinite in putting it into practice.
Especially when you factor in shape, tone pitches, rhythm, time, flow, the intervals between pitches, tension and release, continuity, coherence, cadence, shape and anything I left out.
I hope that makes sense.
Also, into the equation, you have to factor in that you can repeat notes and phrases illustrated in Vivaldi's "Spring Violin Concerto." Or the melody to "Norwegian Wood."
The Surrealist movement of the early 20th century, led by Arnold Schoenberg, was one of the first concerted attempts to search the atonal wilderness for new reserves of melody. But he met with only limited success.
Because, I guess, it was basically atonal.
What do you think? Is it getting more difficult to compose great music or anything original any more?
And do tell. What are the melodies that haunt you?
(If you find yourself humming them, it's a clue. Goosebumps are another.)
We’re all ears.