All music already written (or not)

POSTED: March 3, 2020

According to several different sources, the musician Damien Riehl has worked with programmer Noah Dubin to create a collection of 68 billion melodies, eight notes long. According to the musician Damien Riehl himself this means that “Noah and I have exhausted the data set. Noah and I have made all the music”.

He has, or intends to, put all this music on line. He believes that this should end musical copyright disputes, such as the one that plagued George Harrison when a publishing firm came a knock knock knocking claimed that they could hear the Chiffons’ song He’s So Fine all the way through My Sweet Lord. This started a neat little trend in which publishers claim resemblances that enable them to obtain royalties from songs they would otherwise have no rights over.

Riehl hopes that in future disputes songwriters will simply point to an entry in his free online library and say “you didn’t write it either”. As The Independent put it: “Mr Riehl said his motivation was to demonstrate that the number of possible melodies is finite and therefore liable to patterns being repeated unintentionally.”

Mashable describe this goal as a valiant attempt “to copyright every single combo in order to give it to the public so musicians and artists can use melodies without worrying about copyright issues down the line.”

You can see the whole TEDxMinneapolistalk in which he explains all this here:

We may, of course, question whether a huge string of eight note melodies do in fact exhaust all possibilities. Off the top of my head, doesn’t the melody of Gentle On My Mind last more than eight notes? “It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk” takes about 15 notes.

And once we have exhausted the extended melodies of John Hartford, we still have the whole of African, Asian, and Indian music, not to mention a whole world of First People music, much of which does not even use western scales.

Still it seems like a nice idea, as well as a good place to go fishing the next time you want a melody or two.