Have we already composed, performed, and recorded every combination of notes, tempo, and instruments? Are we living in a time where we will never hear a new combination of notes? Have we already imagined every possible melody?
There are 12 possible intervals between two notes spaced an octave apart. Play or sing an E Flat note. Now play an E Flat one octave above the first note. You have jumped the full range of possible notes available in Western Music. Scales are generally created from a smaller selection of these 12 notes. Within these scales certain notes are generally played much more often than others. This means that many melodies derive from a small subset of the 12 available notes within an octave. One would imagine that there’s not much room for originality in this. But is there?
Is it possible that we've already written every possible melody?
Is it possible that we've already written every possible melody? The first known examples of written music date from roughly 5000 years ago. These days we have a more or less permanent way of storing musical compositions. What distinguishes different pieces of music is as much the timbre and rhythm of the music as the melody. Timbre refers to the general sound of the musical notes. The same melody played on two different instruments can sound different because of timbre. A modern musician might compose a melody using the same notes the Beatles used for a melody of their own but the similarities are not always obvious. The music appear different due to the modern percussion, synths, and imported samples. The sound is further manipulated by adding compression, digital delay, and a whole host of other effects. That’s the beauty of music. Despite the 12 note constraints musical compositions number in their millions.
Debussy once said that music is the space between the notes
This got me thinking again about how musical constraints force composers to be creative in order to come up with original music. Emphasising silence, and letting simple melodies breath can result in the most beautiful music. Debussy once said that music is the space between the notes. Every composer has the same limited number of notes to use and the skill lies in their ability to produce original music. Originality comes from a combination of notes chosen, rhythm, note durations, and harmony. But the quality of the sound (timbre), the strength of the notes (loud/soft) and the expression placed on the notes are also factors.
Thomas Newman has an incredible talent for generating emotion through his music. His minimalistic music is in contrast to the work of his contemporaries Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, and Alan Silvestri. The other day I was listening to the ‘Meet Joe Black’ soundtrack by Newman. Something told me that I’d heard the music before. On listening to my other favourite composers I noticed similarities in a piece by Arvo Part. Part’s minimalistic style is individual and striking.
Fratres, his 1977 composition and one of his most famous works, uses repetition of musical phrases over drones. This method is based on the Tintinnabuli style, which Part invented. Tintinnabuli dictates that certain musical voices use only notes from specific triads and are thus restricted in movement. The first couple of minutes of the track ‘Yes’ from Meet Joe Black 0:06 – 2:00 resemble Part’s ‘Fratres’ 1:19 – 2:00. Did Newman copy Fratres? Hardly, but there are certain points to keep in mind. Both composers use the same instrumentation and write (mostly) minimalistic, atmospheric pieces. The chances of some similarities are quite high. This brings us to the polemic issue of copyright infringement in music. I am not suggesting that Newman copied Part, far from it, but it is possible that the younger composer was influenced by (according to many people) the world’s greatest living composer.
One could argue that copyright laws are a type of artistic straightjacket imposed on musicians. It seems almost unfair that strict laws should govern the creation of art. A recent case involving Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ ended with The Gap Band receiving writing credits and royalties for the song. The hook of Uptown Funk apparently sounds much like the riff of ‘Oops up side your head‘. You decide! A few years back Coldplay and Joe Satriani had a famous spat about the former's ‘Viva la Vida’, which appeared to copy the melody of Joe Santriani’s ‘If I could fly’. Satriani claimed that Coldplay copied his song without permission. The facts are that the tempo, rhythm, and chord structure are similar.
The Marvin Gaye estate recently took exception to Pharrel and Robin Thicke’s ‘blurred lines‘, claiming it was a direct rip off of ‘Got to give it up’. Here's the intro to that song. Marvin Gaye’s family won big on this one.
The Gaye estate also found issue with another Pharrel song ‘Happy', alleging that it copies ‘Ain’t that peculiar‘. Pharrel has, no doubt, heard Gaye’s work but did he deliberately copy his work? I think it’s unlikely but there’s no reason he hasn’t tipped his hat in respect to his influences. Composers make references to other composers as a sign of respect or as form of admiration.
In US Law for an artist to sue for copyright infringement they must prove that the plagiarist had access to (meaning ‘they heard') the original music and that there’s a ‘striking similarity‘ between the copy and original. In all the cases above, except perhaps Satriani vs Coldplay, the artist that allegedly copied the original song most likely had ‘access' to the original. Whether they consciously copied the song is another issue.
Will there come a time when Musicians must reference their music against a database at every step of the creative process?
Is there a solution to this problem (if indeed it can be called a problem)? As artists release more and more music every year we will no doubt see an increase in lawsuits. There might come a time when Musicians must reference their music against a database at every step of the creative process. Efficiency dictates checking a melody for similarities even before completing the piece of music. Apps like Midomi, Shazam and Soundhound analyse melodies and compare them to released material. These apps could become an integral part of a musician's toolkit.
Musical tastes change and this allows for creativity and originality. Yet music will always have to follow certain rules if it is not to offend the listener’s ears. The laws of nature govern how we perceive sound. This makes it harder to be original in the overcrowded modern world. But musicians continue releasing music in ever-increasing numbers, and the art lives on.