Music History

Has Pop Music Finally Run Out of Melodies? There’s an Argument That Says Songwriters Are in Real Trouble

Here are a couple of musical terms you may have heard before:

(1)          Earworm: Those occasions when a clip of a song keeps running through your head on a loop over and over and over again.

(2)         Mondegreen: A misheard lyric. A great example is in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” when he sings “’scuse me while i kiss the sky.” Millions hear “’scuse me while i kiss this guy” instead.

I propose we need a third term: The opinion that overcomes us when we believe one song sounds almost exactly like another.

You know what I means:  You hear a new song and a brief sense of déjà vu fills your head as your brain tries to correlate its musical database with what you’re hearing. When all the processing is complete, you think (a) “Hey! Someone ripped off [artist x]!” or (b) “Someone’s gonna get sued!”

What should we call that? A musical homophone? I tried making up Latin terms (lyreadem for “same song” or lyasimilis for “similar song). The Germans–they have words for everything–have this term: änlichsong. Or maybe I’m overthinking it. Deja tune has a nice simple ring to it.

But given what we’ve had to work with in the west, we’ve certainly been able to create a lot of music. For centuries, we’ve used a standard scale of pitches or “notes” called the “chromatic scale”: 12 notes in an octave then repeat.

All notes are related to each other mathematically. The connections between the notes are a set series of ratios–or, as music theorist say, “intervals of a semitone.” Playing notes in certain combinations or patterns reveal things like chords, keys, melody, harmonies and so on. These 12 notes are the building blocks of our music used by songwriters for centuries. Everything from the greatest Mozart opera to the dumbest punk song is constructed from the same basic stuff.

You might believe that the possible combinations of notes would be infinite–or we’re certainly at least dealing with a very, very, very big number.

I have that number courtesy of Frank Behrens who wrote about this in The Arts Times in 2004. A quick bit of factoring reveals that there are 479,001,600 possible combinations of those 12 notes if you just played them once each. But if you accept that there are many ways to play one note–whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, 8th notes, 16th notes and 32nd notes, and so on–you end up with a much bigger number: something just north of 1 quintillion possible combinations. (That’s a 1 followed by eighteen zeros.)

What’s more, if you played a new combination of notes every second, it would take you 33,630,236,360 years–which is at more than twice the known age of the universe. Again, that’s just for non-repeating sequences using the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

But hang on. You just can’t stick a bunch of tones and semitones together and expect them to sound good. Music has to sound pleasing to the ear and soul, too.

So despite that exercise in big numbers, there are only so many combinations of notes that work from an artistic and aesthetic point of view. So if there are only so many notes than can be put together in only so many pleasing ways, how long before we start repeatings ourselves? And if we narrow things down further to the idiom and aesthetics of, say, rock or pop, that near-infinite number of note combinations becomes frighteningly finite. How long will it be before we run out of tunes and melodies?

The Guardian wonders if we haven’t reached that point already.

This week, Ed Sheeran, a pop star whose stranglehold on the UK Top 40 is so extreme that his Star Wars name would be Chart Maul, avoided a lengthy legal trial by settling a $20m (£16m) copyright infringement claim out of court, for an unspecified sum. Two writers behind Amazing, a song by X Factor hat-botherer Matt Cardle, had spotted something familiar in Sheeran’s song Photograph and, represented by the legal team who annihilated Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in the controversial Blurred Lines case, filed a lawsuit.

This settlement comes two weeks after the writers of TLC’s No Scrubs were suddenly added to the credits of Sheeran’s Shape of You (the precise circumstances of that addition are unknown, but it is fair to speculate that Sheeran didn’t just do it for a laugh) and it follows a claim last year – apparently ongoing – that Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud copied Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

It is not just about Sheeran. Whether it is Mark Ronson adding Oops Upside Your Head’s writers to Uptown Funk or a shift in the law allowing for a case against Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (which the band won), alleged musical kleptomania seems more heavily patrolled than ever. There are many questions here. Are songwriters increasingly lazy, or arrogant, or simply incompetent – or are they being unfairly chastised for a warm homage to the music they, and we, grew up with? Is plagiarism itself on the increase or are ambulance-chasing legal teams becoming more aware that many artists will quietly settle out of court to avoid public legal proceedings? And after 70 years of this thing we call pop, are the chances of writing something brand new mathematically fewer?

Keep reading.



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38340 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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