I guess there is a thing now where you pick a youtube video and send it to me for my commentary. Timothy Tharaldson sent in this one.
This is wrong-headed for several reasons, so it’s hard to know where to start. He says so little in so much time, that it is easy to get confused. Let’s start with some of the easy surface misconceptions.
We can record music using bits. Recorded music is not that same thing as hearing it in real life. It is easy to mistake the two if you are only used to hearing the kind with zeros and ones, but in real life, music is infinitely more complicated.
He has to force music into discreet components and leave a bunch of stuff out in order to make it calculable. So, for example, he talks about combinations of pitches and rhythms (surprisingly there is no mention of rests so his calculations may be all off!) Notice we don’t discuss timbre, volume, attack, decay, portamento, the tender baby’s breath of a vibrato change that the violinist put in that turn. Well, if we included all those factors, we would be talking about real music, and then the calculations would be too big, and it would make for a very short video. He would just say, “No, we will never run out of combinations.” Instead, he takes a long time to say, “No, we will never run out of combinations.”
All of this is a variation of the infinite monkey theorem to me, but it misunderstands the point. Composition is always a very human activity, and composers are not picking notes from an infinite number of combinations. The monkeys may eventually type Hamlet, but to do so, they would need to type 500,000 copies of Hamlet with one word spelled wrong, and 1,000,000 copies with two. Eventually, there would be infinite Hamlets, but it wouldn’t really be Hamlet would it? It wouldn’t be what Hamlet really is. The work of William Shakespeare wrestling words into submission until they convey something that can transform those who encounter it is not reducible to infinite chance.
So, he goes on to say that we like certain patterns. 40 songs with 40 chords. Everybody is copying because we only like those patterns. Blah, blah, blah. There is always a certain amount of imitation that occurs, and to some degree that’s a good thing. Imitating is flattery. Stealing is bad. The line is blurry. (Get it. “Blurred Lines”. See what I did there.) However, there is a different way to think about this whole problem.
One of the reasons why there are so many 3 and 4 legged chairs is that the 1 and 2 legged chairs were so much less successful. One of the reasons so many buildings hold their roofs up with walls is that the ones that try to hold them up without walls are so much worse. That is to say, art happens in real life with a real person interacting with real materials. Sometimes a structure is discovered that seems innate to the material itself and the artistic merit is in making beautiful 4 legged chairs.
In music, the 12-bar blues is one such structure. It’s sturdy foundation is durable enough to allow a surprising amount of variation. For some people, there is enough freedom in the restrictions of the structure that they can spend their entire lives exploring that little area of the world. So, you might believe that B.B. King ran out of ideas when he was 20 and just kept copying the same patterns of notes and rhythms. I think that’s sort of an ungenerous approach. I prefer to think that he was creating an entire universe inside of a bottle. When you go inside the bottle, it is magically larger than the outside.
Of course, once the folks over at Vsauce get a hold of my blog and see how well it compresses, they’ll be able to put it on their graph and tell me that it was either too simple or too complex for people to like. Hopefully, they will make a video that calculates all the possible words that I could have used and then tell me that surprisingly we tend to like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.