Could we run out of musical note combinations? (Part 2)

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Will composers run out of new combinations of musical notes to create original melodies? Or are there endless combinations? (continued)

Richard Widess Department of Music, SOAS University of London

It is impossible to answer the question because it is under-specified. If these are just new combinations of notes, then obviously one can always add another note to an existing sequence, just as one can add 1 to any other number and generate a new number. . If there is a limit on the length of a melody, or a minimum difference between melodies greater than one note, or if there are combination rules that must be followed, then the number of possible melodies can be finite .

In language, linguist Noam Chomsky argued that recursive syntax can, in principle, generate an infinite number of grammatical sentences. It’s an intriguing question, still unresolved, whether the same applies to the melody.

Kaye Butler Highworth, Queensland, Australia

A previous answer to this question (December 4) cites a musical piece by John Cage with the title 4’33” (4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, ie absolute zero sound). For the uninitiated, 4’33” is not a random number but is 273 seconds. Geddit?

Natalie Roberts Watford, Hertfordshire, UK

John Cage’s Silent Composition 4’33” can be taken as a reference for any melody variation, as long as the duration and/or sounds are changed. Sounds reasonable, theoretically speaking, but reminded me of something I read that illustrates a flaw in this approach.

Cage’s estate reportedly threatened to sue another artist, Mike Batt, for plagiarism. Batt had released an album with his band, The Planets, which included a track consisting of 1 minute of total silence. Cage’s lawyers claimed that this new silent composition was plagiarized (the lawsuit turned out to be a publicity stunt).

So while the variety of “tunes” may be endless, too little variation will lead to accusations of plagiarism. Incidentally, Batt pointed out that his piece was better anyway, as he could “say in a minute what Cage could only say in 4 minutes and 33 seconds”.

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