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I have asked this question from my intro to music college professor, many years ago, and his answer was in the negative. I have searched the internet for answers but not found any.

There are many similar sounding tunes out there, especially in pop music and many people have been sued for copyright violations. So there are similarities.

A recognizable musical tune can be hummed or played on a single instrument. A composer can choose the notes as well as the timing and sequence in which they played. A popular tune can be recognized if someone hums the tune of the first verse. A composer has to avoid duplicating any previous tune.

There must be a theoretical limit to the number of note sequences that can be constructed out of a set of notes. Isn't it reasonable to assume, and possible to calculate, the total number of recognizable melodies that can be created from these? Doesn't it limit the number of songs that can ever be written?

To put things in perspective, though, no one has ever heard all the songs ever composed in all cultures since the beginning of time, so there maybe exact duplicates of song melodies but without anyone knowing.

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I saw a YouTube video, I think Vsauce, where he crunched the numbers. I also just googled it and found this guy https://plus.maths.org/content/how-many-melodies-are-there. According to these numbers there are is a very high number of ways to permutate musical notes. The website comes to conclusion of

There are around 82,500,000,000,000,000,000 melodies that are 10 notes long.

And this number is just raw permutations of notes and rhythms that doesn't take into account repeated notes, which would add to the number by a lot. However it also doesn't take into account common practice and tonality and recognizability and other factors that make a melody worth composing. This would reduce the number I think. But I believe the number would still be rather high.

  • Wow! I have not seen the video but that's a fantastic answer! It explains a a lot. Thanks for the answer. Calculating the permutations from 7 notes for a 10 note melody (with repeated notes) I get an answer of 282,475,249 melodies. (7 to the power of 10). In comparison, Itunes has over 43 million songs. - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITunes_Store – stackex555 Dec 5 '16 at 4:45
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Music is a continuous remixing of the same concepts, people gets something that they listened in the past, and applying changes they can create something new.

You can't think in terms of notes. Music is more complex than that, you have to include chords, rhythm and metric (chords per bar). It's not the same the A chord and the A7sus4 chord.

A lot of pop songs use the same three chords, but with variations in rhythm and the changes between them you can have a lot of melodies.

If you get out of the typical chords and the typical metric (4/4) you can have even more scope.

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That’s why avant garde music was born: The same tiresome and annoyingly cliché melodies and riffs were constructed in shockingly creative and original ways. However, that is not to imply that it is easy for today’s composers to create music that the ears will recognize as unfamiliar. The brain is capable of distinguishing patterns from each other. So, that being said, it is becoming increasingly difficult for composers to compose music that redefines the genre to which it belongs. However, at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily insinuate that music as a whole will cascade towards a definite end. In the last four decades, numerous music genres have emerged. So, to answer your question, yes, melodies eventually will run out, but they can be used in an infinite number of ways. So will a new musical genre emerge, probably not. I’m assuming you asked such a question because you are very familiar with copyright infringement and may have heard cases in which musicians were unjustly sued because they “stole” a melody or riff that made a particular song stand out. This is one of the reasons why I don’t just listen to jazz. I listen to bossa nova, house, fusion, hip hop, metal, traditional & folk, etc. and eventually have the inspiration to compose a score. Don’t settle in one camp, join other camps, learn from them, and at the end of the day, your music will stand out.

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