(Almost) Endless Possibilities: The Chance of Running Out of New Music

Emma Dahl

Will we ever run out of new music?

Music, when you boil it down, is just the systematic combination of a series of notes into a song. There is a finite number of notes and logically a finite number of ways to combine them. Obviously there is a huge number of possibilities, an unfathomable number of conceivable combinations of notes that can result in new melodies and tunes, but the number is finite nonetheless. At a certain point, is it possible that there is simply no new music, no song that hasn’t been heard before?

A YouTube video by Michael Stevens of Vsauce thoroughly addresses this question. He brings to light the fact that, more than anything, the answer to this question can be found using some relatively simple math. On the website everything2.com, user ferrouslepidoptera conducted a calculation to find the number of possible melodies that could arise out of any combination of whole-, half-, quarter-, eighth-, sixteenth- or thirty-second notes in just one measure within one octave. The number she came up with was about 123 million billion billion billion. While each of these little melodies is technically unique, there are still a lot of those that sound the same. It’s important to consider that even though a song is literally not identical to another, it may still sound essentially the same. Songs often end up sounding like other previously recorded melodies, which can sometimes lead to legal suites between artists. For example, the opening to David Guetta’s “One Love” sounds nearly identical to Coldplay’s familiar “Clocks” piano line. There are also certain chord progressions that seem to pop up everywhere. A notable example is the beginning of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” Without a doubt, certain similar-sounding melodies and chord progressions are more pleasing to the ear than others, so they tend to pop up more often.

However, it’s probably safe to say that we won’t run out of new music. Considering the number of possible combinations of melodies in just one measure, the incredible number of different songs that could be created over just 20 measures is staggering. While certain songs may not turn out to be major hits and some will tend to garner more attention because they have that certain structure that appeals to a lot of people, it’s going to take a staggeringly large amount of time for people to run out of options.