[This was my weekend column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]
Given what we’ve had to work with here in the West, we’ve certainly been able to create a lot of music.
For centuries, we’ve relied on a standard number of standard pitches arranged as the notes on the chromatic scale. Twelve notes in an octave, then repeat.
All notes are related to each other mathematically. The connections between the notes are a series of ratios — or, as music theorists say, “intervals of a semitone.” Playing notes in certain combinations or patterns reveal things like chords, keys, melodies, harmonies and so on.
These twelve notes are the building blocks of music. Everything from the greatest Mozart opera to the dumbest punk song is constructed from the same basic stuff.
This might lead you to believe that the number of combinations of notes would be infinite — or at least a very, very big number.
Actually, I have that number. This comes courtesy of writer Frank Behrens, who wrote about this very thing in The Arts Times in 2004.
A quick bit of factoring reveals that there are 479,001,600 possible combinations of those twelve 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, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and thirty-second notes, you end up with a much bigger number, something north of one quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations of those twelve notes.
I’m just warming up. Keep reading.