October 23, 2006

More on Music:

Was John Stuart Mill right that we would run out of melodies someday? A reader writes:

You forgot the quote from Diderot regarding mathematicians. "I almost dare to assert," he stated in 1754, "that in less than a century we shall not have three great geometers left in Europe. This science will very soon come to a great standstill where Bernoullis, Eulers, Maupertuis, Clairauts, Fontaines, d'Alemberts, and La Granges will have left it. They will have erected the columns of Hercules. We shall not go beyond that point."

Well, as my high school geometry teacher made clear to me at report card time, I sure didn't go beyond that point.

Regarding your article "Where Did All the Catchy Tunes Go?" I'm not buying your reason for why the # of catchy tunes have declined. You state, "No, I suspect contemporary songwriters have simply run into diminishing returns. Their predecessors have just used up most of the melodies that are easy to find." "Instead, they were like the first miners to get to California gold fields in 1849. They just got there first"

This would imply that current songwriters are aware of all the great melodies that have been written in the past. This is certainly not true. If a songwriter born in 1980 was not aware of any music composed before he was born(no Bach, Stephen Foster, Beatles) and he grew up on a steady diet of Rap and Heavy Metal do you think this songwriter would be better at writing melodies than one who was aware of all the great melodies in the past? Would he re-compose Jesu, Beautiful Dreamer or Yesterday? No way.

You write, "If each note of a melody can be selected from, say, eight notes on average, there are 64 pairs of notes, 512 motifs of three notes, 4,096 phrases of four notes, and so on, multiplying out to trillions and trillions of musical pieces."

This greatly underestimates the # of combinations. First, each note can have a separate time value, a whole-note, a half-note, a quarter-note, an eighth-note etc. Also music can be played legato, staccato, swing rhythm, slow,fast etc. As well, the chords being played under the melody greatly change how the music sounds. If you add all this up you certainly have many more musical combinations than combinations involving letters, in which there are only 26 to choose from. Are we running out of poems? Today's poets certainly aren't comparable to Wordsworth, Shelley, or Keats. Is this due to lack of combinations involving letters, or the fact the poets no longer care about structure, metre, and rhyme? I would say the latter. So why are songs not as catchy as they used to be? I'm not quite sure. It might be Bob Dylan's influence. Serious writers are suppose emphasize lyrics rather than melody. Only teeny bopper girls care about melody. However, Max Martin is laughing all the way to the bank.

p.s. I have found from composing music myself that almost any combination of notes can be made to sound "catchy", you just have to find the right tempo, time value for each note, and chord structure.

Another writes:

I'll just say this: there are still many intriguing melodies to be written. Trouble is when people use the description "pleasing" (like one of your readers did), what they have in mind is more or less a small (middle-of-the-road) subset of the possibilities. And unfortunately people are very, very conservative regarding their tastes on what a good melody is.

Popular musical styles generally play with instrumentation, recording techniques, dress code, singing/playing mannerisms etc. to create the impression of originality, although most of these are, strictly speaking, "external" to music. Strip them away, there's barely any genuine musical difference between an Irish tune of the 18th century and an Irish popular song of the 20th century.

To give you an idea what possibilities are left unexplored, let me give an example from 20th century classical (serious? art?) music: please listen to the first 2 movements of Bela Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra." (Yes, that's the name, no typos there.) You'll hear a music both pretty modern and eerie, and yet surprisingly melodic which doesn't fit your usual, run-o-the-mill patterns.

That's because Bartok managed to extract unthought-of musical materials from the folk musics of the Balkans and some Slavic countries. Most Western music is based on the folk stuff of Germanic or Celtic groups, with the French and Spanish providing "exoticism." And that's where the trouble is. Again, to get a flavor of the "human musico-diversity," listen to Bartok's "Dance Suite."

You'll get an audio glimpse of some of the sources untapped.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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