Are we going to run out of tunes? After all, the melodic universe seems to be contained within such narrow parameters. There are only 12 notes within the Western scale (seven if you limit yourself to a mode, or only five if you’re writing a pentatonic crowd-pleaser) so it stands to reason that if you’re limited by these brutalities of musical fact, there can only be so many ways of combining them.
That must be why so many popstars find themselves in court having to defend themselves against charges of pilfering, especially if you throw in the added boundary of having to compose within the compass of the human voice. Among others, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell Williams and Radiohead have been accused of melodic plagiarism.
It’s just as well copyright law didn’t exist in the 18th and 19th centuries, because composers often cannibalised each other’s tunes. Without Mozart remodelling Handel (in his Requiem), Brahms recomposing Bach and Schubert, Wagner rewriting Berlioz and Liszt (in Tristan and Isolde), classical music wouldn’t be as fruitful. Thankfully, the repertoire was enriched by these creative reworkings – rather than the pockets of musical lawyers.
All that recomposing and outright plagiarism surely shows that the well of tunes must run dry, thanks to the laws of musical-mathematical probability. Or perhaps not. Stephen Fry certainly wouldn’t agree. In a brilliant sketch, the author and comedian compares the possibilities of language to the keys of the piano: ‘Eighty-eight keys – only 88 – and yet, and yet: hundreds of new melodies, new tunes, new harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of different keyboards in Dorset alone.’
And according to the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, Fry is right that there is still a universe of possibility left for composers to explore. Du Sautoy says that there is an even greater range of possibilities when it comes to composing melodies than writing sentences. That’s because musical parameters aren’t confined to the notes of whichever scale you’re using – there’s their rhythmic articulation, precise tuning, loudness and timbre. Once you factor in all of those, he says it’s even less likely that those mythical monkeys at their celestial typewriters and keyboards would come up with a tune like the opening of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro than they would generate a line of Shakespeare.
So breathe a sigh of relief, or rather, breathe two: first, because there are still countless tunes waiting to be discovered out there; and another, because that network of family resemblances between tunes is precisely what makes them speak to us. Our favourite melodies are as distinctive and yet as comparable to one another as the members of a family – or a whole species. Like human beings, melodies are – almost – infinitely variable, memorable, and individual.
Illustration by Marie Corte Maidagan