The Null Device

Preserving the supply of original musical ideas

Economist Robin Hanson presents a sustainability-based argument for derivative music:
Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs. As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs. Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.
So when you next see another ploddingly dull lad-rock band rehashing the Beatles or Joy Division once more, without feeling, or hear another cringeworthily trite song about being or not being in love, or roll your eyes at a hack lyricist rhyming "girl" with "world", perhaps consider for a moment that, rather than polluting the world with mediocre pap, they're wisely rationing the finite supply of original musical ideas by not using any. Meanwhile, if the space of original musical ideas is in danger of depletion, the musical snobs who turn up their noses at Robbie Williams or Oasis and listen exclusively to post-tropicalia glitch-hop mashups and avant-garde experimentalism are not so much laudably adventurous spirits as the cultural equivalent of the conspicuously consuming douchebags who drive Hummers and buy endangered animal products.

That is assuming that the space of new musical ideas is finite, of course, and that once it is depleted, there will be nowhere left to go; once every possible verse-chorus-verse song in a blues scale has been written, for example, that humanity will be doomed to listen to songs they've all heard before, rather than, for example, changing the rules of what constitutes (popular) music.

There are 8 comments on "Preserving the supply of original musical ideas":

Posted by: Greg Sun Oct 24 20:44:23 2010

It's a thought-provoking idea. It rests on an analogy between the finiteness of a physical quantity like the world's supply of oil and the finiteness of new musical ideas. This is probably spurious, but it's interesting and there's some great reading in the comments.

Someone had a go at calculating the number of possible songs and how long it would take humankind to write them: "That gives us 11^63 possible unique melodies (eleven notes within a one octave range, sixty four notes within eight bars ..."

Someone pointed out that John Stuart Mill had pondered the problem before.

Some claimed that experimental music doesn't suffer from the problem. However they need to read Kramer: "The avant-garde has become as stylised as classical ballet. It is a fiction of transgression ..."

It scares me when economists talk about the environment, because someone will always say this: "If a resource is diminishing, the free market mechanism steps in and raises the price, resulting in greater production: problem solved".

Posted by: Greg Mon Oct 25 03:33:59 2010

The idea of calculating the number of possible melodies got me thinking about music as a combinatorial space - I googled around and ended up here: .

"Musical set theory is best regarded as a field that is not so much related to mathematical set theory, as an application of combinatorics to music theory with its own vocabulary."

So there's an existing body of research into this topic - who would have thought?

I don't think this approach really quantifies originality though, because pieces of music differ from each other in more ways than their sequence of notes. An example would be when bands cover old songs but give them an entirely new 'cultural meaning' or whatever you call it: eg the Sid Vicious cover of 'My Way'.

Posted by: datakid Mon Oct 25 03:45:35 2010

or Frente's bizarre love triangle.

Posted by: music is repetition Mon Oct 25 06:39:12 2010

Kill the creative class now, for the sake of future generations!

Posted by: acb Mon Oct 25 07:38:50 2010

Also, is there only one possible avant garde, or a vast number of them?

Posted by: Greg Mon Oct 25 09:42:48 2010

It's off topic, but I'm going to paste a longer quote from Lawrence Kramer because it's so punchy. He's a US professor of English and Music.

"[T]he avant-garde has become a second-order phenomenon. Where it once sought radical immediacy, its principal effect is now to signify its own operation from a reflective distance. Where it once sought to break through the traditional norms of artistic, rational, and social order, it has become a normative practice for the depiction of such breakthrough. The avant-garde has become as stylised as classical ballet. It is a fiction of transgression, often directed against norms that have already become depleted not only in art but also in everyday life. (2006: 45)"

Of course there is a famous line in the Fall song "New Puritan" which makes this point.

Posted by: ianw Mon Oct 25 14:53:11 2010

"that the space of new musical ideas is finite" is of course a silly assumption, and the comments to this article are an iceberg's tip of spelling this out. I could 'phone a friend' to get the French lit.crit quotes on why 'originality' is a bogus concept, but that too is such 80s po-mo retro. Even when sheetmusic was the main way to convey note sequence etc., other nuances in the performance (and more importantly, ideas unconnected to the music itself but attached nevertheless by the music's social utility etc blah blah) are what gives a piece its appearance/reception as 'original' in the ear/culture/etc of the beholder.. But at the end of the day, what's worse is all this is detracting from the problem that his argument is supposed to be a critique of 'sustainability', by applying the concept to something that is so patently reusable, unlike, say, something which actually suffers from entropy, heat-damage and whatnot.

Posted by: Plastique Bertrand Wed Oct 27 09:56:36 2010

A mort l'avant-garde, vive l'arrière-garde!

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