Every couple of months I have a night where I lay awake with this anxiety that someday we’re going to run out of new music to write.
Not you and me, personally. But the population in general.
If you stop to think about it—and I do, which is why I can’t sleep—there is a very finite number of pitch, rhythm and harmony combinations that can ever exist. It may be an incredibly wide collection, but at some point someone will write the very last song. Ever.
Then we’d be left with the same music day after day, sort of like TV programming after 9 o’clock on weeknights. (You know, reruns of “Full House.”)
That’s the fear I have.
But then, by about 3 a.m., I become a little less paranoid. That’s because I realize I’m putting a very quantitative value on a very qualitative element.
That is to say: The notion of running out of new note and rhythm combinations is putting music into a controlled and calculated formula, when music is in fact the product of personal and inspired creation.
A few weeks ago I found myself in Kansas City with a couple of extra hours, so I wandered into a large bookstore. (This is a bad habit I have. I rarely buy anything, but I sure enjoy the quiet, glue-bound company.)
As I passed through each aisle admiring the cover artwork, smelling the paper and ink and occasionally picking up a book to investigate its topic, it occurred to me that in the radius of only a few yards around me were literally billions of letters arranged into millions of words strung into thousands and thousands of sentences that compose individual ideas and contemplations and stories.
Each, crafted by hundreds of writers—some of them old, some of them young, some of them fictitious, some of them dead—is a completely unique piece of work using the same old words we all use every day.
Surely, it seems, at some point the possible combinations and arrangements of words will dry up, and that we’ll be left with nothing new to say.
But we won’t. Because, while letters and words and notes and rhythms are restricted to the big handful known to us, the ideas—the inspiration—that we used to sculpt with these objects is infinite. As long as we’re human, there will be something new, insightful and beautiful to create.
Computers can’t replace that. They tried.
Last year a computer named Iamus was programed to use the basic musical rules of notation and ranges of musical instruments. It started with randomly generated fragments of music, and then mutated the elements into a complete orchestral score. An algorithm cut out any unplayable passages, and the London Symphony Orchestra premiered its piece, a 13-minute work called “Tránsitos,” that April.
You can listen to it online if you want. It’s fascinating because it all works. The score flows like a piece of music should. Instruments play melodies and harmonies that fit their voice types. There is a unified tempo. It is music.
But it’s strange. It sounds almost otherworldly, and it is. There’s an element missing: inspiration. No one dreamed up this piece. No composer had to fumble with a notepad and paper in the dark because an idea suddenly occurred at four in the morning.
Instead the music came out of a metal box; the product of algorithms, circuitry and electricity.
And I would expect that if a computer were programed to write the next great American novel, it would produce a similar product: It would put all the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the correct slots. Characters would come and go. There would be accurate punctuation.
But it wouldn’t make sense. It would be R2D2 playing Mad Libs.
What I’ve decided, and what I have to believe, is that art—whether it be music, words or paint on canvas—cannot be tucked neatly into quantitative, finite limitations. Even though we—again, not you and me personally—may continue to use the same elements over and over, the end creation will be unique because its creator was unique.
Who knows? Perhaps we’ve already used every musical combination that is mathematically possible. We’re just too inspired to notice.