Hobbyist musician uses computer algorithm to compose every melody possible in the key of C, then releases it for free online in the hopes of minimizing frivolous copyright suits of simple songs
- A new project compiled every possible melody in the key of C
- The dataset includes 68.7 billion different melodies, hundreds of times more than there are published songs in the history of the music industry
- It began with the hope of reducing frivolous copyright claims over melodies
A lawyer and hobbyist musician collaborated with a computer programmer to generate every possible 12-note melody in the key of C.
The final compilation includes 68.7 billion melodic combinations, which the pair uploaded to the Internet Archive through a Create Commons Zero license, meaning they reserve no rights of ownership to any of them.
They hope the treasure trove of material might help defuse potentially frivolous copyright suits over copied melodies, which they believe are ultimately matters of math not personal ownership.
A lawyer and hobbyist musician partnered with a programmer to create a computer algorithm to generate every 12-note melody possible in the key of C, leading to more than 68.7 billion combinations
‘Under copyright law, numbers are facts, and under copyright law, facts either have thin copyright, almost no copyright, or no copyright at all,’ Damen Riehl said in a Ted Talk explaining the project, according to a report in Vice.
‘So maybe if these numbers have existed since the beginning of time and we’re just plucking them out, maybe melodies are just math, which is just facts, which is not copyrightable.’
The project was originally started in 2019 when Damien Riehl, a lawyer and hobbyist musician, and programmer Noah Rubin were having drinks after a cybersecurity event.
During the day’s presentations Riehl had gotten the idea that it might be possible to ‘brute force’ different combinations of musical notes in the same way that computer hackers brute force different letter and number combinations to crack passwords.
At the time, a jury had just ruled against Katie Perry in a lawsuit brough by Flame, a rapper who claimed her chart topper ‘Dark Horse’ had copied a musical fragment from his 2009 song ‘Joyful Noise.’
The team was inspired by computer hackers how use a ‘brute force’ combination technique to crack other people’s passwords, and thought a similar approach might be useful for arranging notes into melodic structures
Many people criticized the lawsuit and looked back on the growing body of copyright lawsuits alleging that fairly simple arrangements of notes amounted to theft not just probabilistic overlap.
Riehl and Rubin originally hoped to have an algorithm come up with every melodic combination of notes possible in western music, using the 88 notes of a standard piano as their starting point.
They told the algorithm to define a melody as having up to 12 sequential notes taken from those 88 possible choices on the keyboard.
When melodies are represented as mathematical sequences, the likelihood of repeated patterns or structures among two otherwise unconnected songs is high, something the pair believed had motivated a range of frivolous copyright lawsuits
Riehl decided to not include any options for different time signatures to further differentiate the melodies, thinking note selection was enough to distinguish one melody form another.
They soon realized this would far too resource intensive, requiring enough computational power to generate 216 sextillion possible melodies, which would take up 186 zettabytes of hard drive space.
They decided to simplify their process, focusing instead on the eight notes contained in a single octave.
Keeping their definition of a melody as containing up to 12 notes, they calculated all the melodic combinations that could be made from the eight notes in middle C.
After around six days of continuous computing, they ended up with 68.7 billion unique melodies.
For comparison, according to Gracenote, the Nielsen subsidiary which tracks music publishing, only around 79 million songs had been published as of 2011.
Riehl and Rubin hope that by sharing their tools, others might expand on their work, focusing on other keys, different melody lengths, and potentially expanding from a standard 8-note scale to a 12-note scale, which includes all the flats and sharps excluded in a conventional major or minor scale.
HOW DOES MUSICAL COPYRIGHT WORK?
A string of notes put together into a melody cannot be copyrighted by themselves.
In order to copyright a melody it must be expressed in a specific material medium, either in sheet music or a recording.
A composer can copyright a song they’ve written and charge other people who wish to perform it.
A performer can, likewise, copyright their specific performance of a song.
They cannot prevent others from performing that same song unless they are also the composer.
Performers can, however, prevent people from using the recording of their specific performance of someone else’s song.