Is the world running out of melodies? How many possible melody lines can exist if we only have 12 notes available to choose from? In this quick guide, we’ll look at the math behind melodies to answer these questions.
How Many Melodies Can Exist?
The possible number of melodies that can exist is over 83 quintillion at least; and that is only taking into account notes and quaver lengths. In layman’s terms, there is an almost infinite number of possible melodies in music because the sum of available combinations is so staggeringly vast.
Not all of these possible melodies will be pleasing to the ears of American popheads, but they can exist nevertheless.
How Was This Calculated?
The number I provided above was taken from calculations performed by Oli Freke.
In his analysis, he considered the total combinations that could be possible when a certain number of notes and rhythms are put together. For example, how many different 3-note melodies can occur if the beat pattern can have up to 4 different subdivisions.
Freke’s combinations included melodies that could include up to 10 notes with a beat up to 8 subdivisions. From there, I added together the total combinations from all 10 possible variations.
This gives us at least a minimum baseline of how many melodies could be composed and played in all of existence. And to think…this is only considering the 12 notes of Western music! The number of melodies that are conceivable would be even bigger if you included microtones.
Music is Really Just Math
Music may a creative field, but music notes are really just physics and math. More specifically, a music note is the vibration of a wave at a specific frequency that can be heard by the human ear.
If you want to see just a small sample of the melodies that are mathematically achievable, then go check out the All The Music Project. Two musician/programmers created a program that generated melodies based on similar parameters that we used earlier. Their software has generated over 200 billions melodies taking up over 600 gigabytes of computer space.
What About Embellishments?
But we’re missing a chunk of the equation. None of the above calculations are taking into account embellishments and singing/playing styles that could produce even more unique combinations. I’m talking about stuff like:
- Blue notes,
- Grace notes,
- Slides and glissando,
- you get the idea
Will The World Run Out of Melodies Some Day?
No, it’s mathematically unlikely that music will run out of melodies in our lifetime.
It may feel like a lot of music sounds the same, but that’s not due to a lack of possible note combinations. That has more to do with musicians gravitating towards the same chord progressions and scale intervals.