Saturday, May 25Royal Holloway's offical student publication, est. 1986

Are we Running out of Music?

Recently, Lana Del Rey announced that she was being sued for breach of copyright by Radiohead. The English band are claiming that her 2017 song “Get Free” bares significant resemblance to their iconic 1992 hit “Creep”. This is not the first music copyright dispute that “Creep” has been caught up in. Upon its release, Radiohead were sued by the Hollies for having similarities to their song “The Air That I Breathe” released in 1972.

Music copyright claims are, clearly, nothing new. Ed Sheeran was sued in 2017 for his platinum single “Photograph”, Mark Ronson was forced to add a number of additional song writing credits to his number 1 hit “Uptown Funk”, and even the Ghostbusters theme song was involved in a copyright dispute that was eventually settled out of court.

Are these just all cases of lazy songwriters? Or is it possible that these cases of similarities between songs are inevitable? Should we accept the excuse that you can only make so many songs before they start to sound the same?

Mathematically speaking, it is possible that at one point we will run out of melodies to write and perform. The human ears are only capable of picking up a limited number of tones. Meaning, there is technically a limit to the number of different combinations you can place these sounds in to create songs. And bearing in mind that not all of these combinations will sound very good, or even tuneful, the number shrinks further.

The human ears are only capable of picking up a limited number of tones

However, this number is still larger than any amount we could dream of comprehending. So, while there will come a point when all possible melodies will be created, we don’t have to worry because that won’t happen for quite literally millions of years.

But, there is a case for the argument that all songs sound the same nowadays. It is true that musicians and songwriters, particularly in pop music, will often return to the same patterns and melodies again and again. But only for the simple and quite obvious reason that they sound good and people like them.

One example of this is what is known as “The Millennial Whoop”, as it was named by musician Patrick Metzger. This is a common pattern where the melody shifts from the fifth note in a scale, to the third note, and back to the fifth. Since the turn of the century this motif crops up constantly in popular music. Once you notice it, it’s near impossible to not pick up on it in about eighty per cent of your favourite songs. It’s catchy, and it’s everywhere.

So can accused songwriters be forgiven for these copyright disputes they get tangled up in? In some cases, yes. Popular music often sounds the same by virtue of the fact that songwriters know what sells and what people like. But in others, not really. We’re not in danger of running out of original music anytime soon.