Big thanks to my brother, Cortland, on the help writing this. Cortland is currently pursuing an advanced degree in music theory and helped make sure I wasn't completely wrong here, only mostly.
I. Music has been exhausted
All pop music sounds the same. No, that actually isn’t just a curmudgeon’s cynical view of popular music, being a hipster for hipster’s sake; as Percino, Klimek, and Turner (2014) showed, pop music is mathematically formulaic simplifying linearly with increases in popularity. [i]
There’s a great deal of science to be cited for how different factors of music affect us, but the undeniable reality is that “new” works are being composed daily, but at the same time, nearly every possible permutation of our 12-tone equal tempered system has been exhausted. This begs the obvious question: what even is “new” music?
Take, for instance, the difference in emotional response when listening to Frédéric Chopin’s op. 28 no. 20 and Beethoven’s “Pathétique”. They are in the same key, on the same instrument, using very similar chord choices, but absolutely “feel” different. The subtle nuances of music are not just what notes you play, it’s when you play them. It’s how you play them. It’s also which notes you don’t play.
This is a result of a simple fact: only a select number of sounds are consonant to the human ear. In a brazen act of drastic oversimplification, this can simply be understood as a brute fact of frequency intervals and note/chord progressions and combinations. What this means in layman’s terms is that the number of consonant chords and the melodies they create is a finite number. If one were to look at a simple 7 note scale, ignoring half notes and octave changes (a bad idea), we get a mere 343 different three note combinations.
A more rigorous quantification shows that there are only 4,017 majority consonant (i.e. good-sounding) pitch sets. Many of these are mere transpositions of one another, so we can safely divide that number in half to conclude there are only about 2,000 majority-consonant and therefore musically useful pitch sets.[ii]
Don’t just take our word for it, though; this has been algorithmically proven. A math-and-tech savvy lawyer named Damien Riehl actually created an algorithm to find all of the possible consonant melodies available to the human ear, which comes out to about 68 billion. Oh, and he copywrited them all. We’ll return to that seeming absurdity later.
However, the actual scope of enjoyable music is but a tiny subset of all of those potential melodies. According to Damien, about 3 billion of those have already been combined into coherent songs, only leaving about 65 billion combinations left. Combine this with the fact that literally anyone can create and upload music using readily available completely free software, and it’s clear we will as a species very soon, if we have not already, create all the possible melodies that are mathematically possible.
So, what does that leave? What happens in a few years when all of those have been exhausted by all the SoundCloud artists in the world?
The dictionary definition of timbre is the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity. Put more simply, it’s the unique character of every musical sound that is not captured by all of the math discussed above. More specifically, according to the Acoustical Society of America (what are those annual conferences like?), timbre is “that attribute of auditory sensation which enables a listener to judge that two nonidentical sounds, similarly presented and having the same loudness and pitch, are dissimilar.”[iii]It is that last bit of information which makes a piano and a guitar playing the same note at the same pitch and with the same volume level still sound differently to the human ear. And it is this final frontier of music where the future of music lies.
Prior to the advent of the information age, even the range of timbre was limited. This is because a finite number of musical instruments exist. Even including such nontraditional means as garbage cans and cups, as in the famous scene from Pitch Perfect, it’s clear the number of potential timbres before the advent of computers was limited. There is unfortunately no way to quantify this the same way we can quantify the total space of consonant music, but the intuitive logic is clear: apes can only figure out so many things to bang on or blow through to create different timbres.
That is, until software came around. With simple musical software, it’s possible to finely modify the timbre of anything in a literally infinite number of ways to create music. No greater example of this fact exists than this beautiful work of modern art in which a Youtuber created an entire song by modifying the timbre of his farts with software. If that can be made into music, then anything can.
So, with timbre, the possibilities of musical frontiers remain wide and infinitely open—to one genre: electronic music.
III. Our saving grace: electronic music
By electronic music, I don’t just mean the bass-heavy music to which millions of youths gather every year in very little clothing to enjoy. No, I mean any music created with the aid of software-modified timbre. The rate of technological advancements means that every year, soundscapes never before heard suddenly come to be. Devices like the keeper profiler, programs like Neural DSP and GGD drums, and all the pitch correcting parts of production programs, make it so that any sound you can think of, and all of the ones you can’t, are and will always be available.
To electronic music.
I myself am overjoyed by this prospect, as I’m unhealthily obsessed with electronic music; I even keep a running playlist which I update weekly with the best electronic, including experimental frontier music, which you can find here(sorry Spotify people, I am mired in the sunk cost fallacy and refuse to switch to your clearly superior platform).
The importance of this insight cannot be overstated: with software, we can start with traditional instrumentation like the guitar or the piano and modify it in a literally infinite number of ways to always create new sonic environments pleasing to the human ear.
EDM, the modern incarnation of electronic music, does this with astounding virtuosity already. Take my second favorite song of all time, “Overkill” by RIOT. It contains traditional guitar riffs, drums, and strings, as well as a whole host of electronic sounds cut from whole cloth with software.
We can see this bleeding over into popular music as well, with more and more new hits songs involving elements traditionally reserved to EDM, or to EDM artists themselves, such as “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I, or “Heartless” by Diplo, both of which are pure EDM songs and both of which are on the Billboard hot 100 as of this writing. While those songs are traditionally pop songs with mere elements of EDM music, I predict EDM will continue to gradually overtake the charts as this trend continues to intensify, eventually become the only possible avenue for new music creation as the 64 billion remaining melodies are rapidly exhausted over the next few decades.
If you don’t like EDM, then get used to it, because soon it will be the only thing available.
IV. Entrepreneurial and Legal Implications—or, why Copywrite is an illogical absurdity
Now, back to the gentlemen earlier, Damien Rheil, who copywrited all of the remaining melodies. Masterstroke of patent trolling though this may seem, he is actually chaotic good; he patented all remaining yet-to-be patented 64 billion melodies and made every single last one of them open source. You can play with them, and the algorithm that makes them, at http://allthemusic.info/.
This makes copywrite law for music a little… awkward. I’m no lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt the size of Manhattan, but the implications of this seem to be that all music focused patent attorneys must content themselves with battling out the copywrites on existing music; Damien Reihl has seen to that.
Perhaps even more importantly for the future, US statutory and common law has evolved to not consider timbre as a copywritable musical element—further confusing the situation to near impassibility.[iv]All future music won’t really be copywritable.
Of course, copywrite, trademark, and patent law in and of themselves are a logical absurdity which inhibit innovation, catalyze monopolistic behavior, and generally make all of our lives worse—including being largely to blame for the opioid crisis and the hundreds of thousands of deaths that entails. I won’t trot out all the details of that here, but I highly suggest everyone read Against Intellectual Property by Stephan Kinsella and Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin. Kinsella’s book is an ardent but purely philosophical takedown of intellectual property of all kinds, while Boldrin’s work makes a strong empirical and consequentialist case that IP is slowing human progress and actively hurting people.
This destruction of copywrite combined with a shift toward more electronic dominant music, which is easily accessible to anyone anywhere in the world thanks to software, means that music is soon going to become astoundingly decentralized. Platforms like Gumroad, Patreon, Soundcloud, and many more will enable anyone to produce music and market it directly to consumers, without the intermediary of record labels gumming up the process and increasing transaction costs.
The implications of this are not straightforwardly positive, however. A simple contemplation of supply and demand would indicate that such a surge of supply will shift the entire supply curve right, decreasing the per unit price of music:
Ah, the memories from college this inspires
This is borne out by data on the revenue artists generate per stream on various streaming platforms, with some making less than a cent per stream.[v]Now, this is partially a result of the centralized nature of these massive streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, so decentralization might increase competition for artists and thus increase the per unit price of a stream. However, I remain convinced the resulting equilibrium will be a lower price per song produced than before streaming became a thing, but higher than the current oligopolistic platform distribution system.
Whether or not the return to music creation remains high enough to continue to incentivize artists remains to be seen; the returns follow a power law wherein many artists make nothing while a select few make millions, so the potential of being one of the few may still catalyze musical development. Additionally, there is an innate human desire in some individuals to create music irrespective of the financial return for doing so. All in all, I remain bullish on the future prospects for music.
V. Electronic is the future
The upshot of all of this is simple: we’re running out of music in the traditional sense of discovering new chords and melodies, but we’ve done what human ingenuity always does to ameliorate this: invented a new technology that has created an infinite frontier for creation and new generation.
The more we can remove the barriers to technological innovation, as the impending implosion of music copywrite will, remains key to the continued advancement of human progress. More on that later. ;)
[i] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0115255#abstract0 [ii] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Huron/publication/257925657_Interval-Class_Content_in_Equally_Tempered_Pitch-Class_Sets_Common_Scales_Exhibit_Optimum_Tonal_Consonance/links/5571fc3708ae7536374c719a.pdf [iii] Acoustical Society of America Standards Secretariat (1994). "Acoustical Terminology ANSI S1.1–1994 (ASA 111-1994)". American National Standard. ANSI / Acoustical Society of America [iv] https://blogs.law.gwu.edu/mcir/2018/12/20/timbre/ [v] https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2018/12/25/streaming-music-services-pay-2019/