Sunday, 25 November 2012

Music; imagination with a cap

'Rocketship music' by
mark sebastian under
a CC license.
One more post that has, really, nothing to do with food and very little - if any - with innovation.

The other day I came across an old post on Covered in Bees asking the question "How many songs are there?". The post tries to answer the question by calculating the number of bit value combinations that are possible within the total bit of a 5-minute song on a typical CD, which is sampled at 44.1 KHz at a 16-bit depth. The resulting number of combinations is 2211,680,000. That is a really a big, VERY big number. It is a number over 63 MILLION digits long. In comparison, as the post in Covered in Bees points out, the number of atoms that comprise Earth is a figure of some 50 digits in length.

The calculation above comes with several working hypotheses, such as sampling rate, sampling depth and duration. That makes calculation easy for digital recordings. For analogue recordings things would be a bit more complicated but, given that we humans do have practical thresholds in telling tones apart, the key outcome would be the same: The number of "compositions" lasting a finite amount of time is, practically, finite.

The number of "melodies", however, is debatable and is much, much smaller than the figure 2211,680,000. You see, that figure includes ANY combination of sounds with duration of 5 minutes: all music of all kinds ever conceived, discussions of any topic, sounds of nature, white noise, even silence. What the figure does NOT take into consideration is whether the outcome would sound like "music" to us, not to mention "pleasant music".

Well, at this point things become a bit more complicated. Obviously tastes in music vary. Age, character, culture, tradition, instruments and transmission media available are amongst factors that affect perception of what constitutes "pleasant music". A recent scientific paper (NJ Hudson, "Musical beauty and information compression: Complex to the ear but simple to the mind?", BMC Res Notes. 2011; 4: 9) argued that appealing music, regardless its complexity to the ear, is the one that in fact is simple to the min.

On the funnier side of things, Axis of Awesome suggest that major hits of our time have in fact been based on just 4 (four) chords. Yes, 4. No need to elaborate on that. Feel free to watch the corresponding video:

To be fair, the Axis of Awesome talk about the "pillars" of melody and NOT about the main melody itself. If you want to look closer to similarities between songs, go check out

At any rate, however, regardless of the math involved, the hard truth is that the tunes we like are finite and - most probably - few. Which sort of explains why the same (or similar) music resurfaces from time to time, usually accompanied by different lyrics. Personally, I'm quite surprised that IPR lawyers and IPR trolls haven't heavily headed that way, yet. But, hey, for common people like us, the point of music is to have fun, make ourselves feel a bit better and - altogether - "talk to the soul", isn't it?

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