#1
Hey guys,

I had this thought the other day, and it won't go away. I can't get over how there are only 12 notes in Western Music. I instantly think how, logically speaking, soon enough you'll run out of combinations, and songs just sound the same - or that's what my head believes. With so many people making music and so few notes, how can you be different? How can you really be creative when you only have 12 options to work with? And what about the voice? You can only hit so many notes when you sing. How can you be compose and be truly expressive when you have so few tools to work with? Hopefully I won't get sick of music because it's so repetitive and I hear the same things over and over?

I used to love music and get lost in it, but these questions have been bothering me whenever a song comes on, and it's annoying. Can anyone help me see reason? I know I have a tendency to overthink things, is that all I'm doing?

Thanks in advance!
#2
Well you actually have 13 options because you could play no notes for some beats.
Let's start with an analogy...

Think of an artist with just a black pen and paper. Then ask yourself how they could possibly express themselves with just white and black. If we treat the paper like a computer picture and say that there are only a certain number of "dots" that can be made on the page before it is completely full. Thus with just black and white to choose from for each dot then at some point we will run out of possible combinations. How could an artist possibly express themselves.

It's kind of ridiculous to think of art possibilities on a piece of paper with a black pen in such a manner. I get where you're coming from but the reasoning is the same. When it comes to art of any kind you have to consider the bigger picture. It's not fill in the blanks with note selection it's the creation of a new exploration in sound.

Yes combinations of notes get used over and over again. So what. The number of notes in a song is quite long. The length of the notes, the notes that are played at the same time, the rhythm, the dynamics, instrumentation etc. There are so many things that can be altered that the limits on what can be expressed with those 12 notes is only limited by your imagination.

For example consider the three notes from three blind mice (three notes descending from third to tonic 3-2-1) also appears in the Beatles tune All You Need is Love (Love Love Love = 3-2-1). And though you can hear these similarities in those three notes the artistic expression is vastly different when you consider the songs as a whole.

There is more to music than selecting one note to follow another.


EDIT: There are only 26 letters in the English language. Yet what are the limits of expression through the written word???

And yeah 12 is less than 26 but we don't have multiple octaves of the same letter like we do of pitches. Besides, 12 or 26: the result is the same. Limit is a product of imagination NOT of the available palette.
Si
#3
20Tigers, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for taking the time to post that, I really appreciate it!
#4
+1 to everything that 20T said. If you think note choice is the only thing that determines what a song will sound like you have much to learn.
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#5
Quote by Drausin
Hey guys,

I had this thought the other day, and it won't go away. I can't get over how there are only 12 notes in Western Music. I instantly think how, logically speaking, soon enough you'll run out of combinations, and songs just sound the same - or that's what my head believes. With so many people making music and so few notes, how can you be different? How can you really be creative when you only have 12 options to work with? And what about the voice? You can only hit so many notes when you sing. How can you be compose and be truly expressive when you have so few tools to work with? Hopefully I won't get sick of music because it's so repetitive and I hear the same things over and over?

I used to love music and get lost in it, but these questions have been bothering me whenever a song comes on, and it's annoying. Can anyone help me see reason? I know I have a tendency to overthink things, is that all I'm doing?

Thanks in advance!


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#6
Fewer options tend to force you to be more creative in their usage.
#7
All of what 20 Tigers said and the fact that music is much, much more than just notes.
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#8
Quote by 20Tigers
EDIT: There are only 26 letters in the English language. Yet what are the limits of expression through the written word???

And yeah 12 is less than 26 but we don't have multiple octaves of the same letter like we do of pitches. Besides, 12 or 26: the result is the same. Limit is a product of imagination NOT of the available palette.


To slightly further this: all computers have to work with is 0s and 1s and yet by combinations of those two things we have all the insane digital magic that surrounds us every day.
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#9
All the opinions in this thread are being expressed with just 26 letters to choose from, and I didn't even use all of them.

[EDIT] Ok i see 20Tigers already said that. I admit i was being lazy and didn't read all his post!
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#11
I always say, "Just because you can't be 100% original doesn't mean you can't be creative."
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#12
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Si
#15
You only have 26 letters in the alphabet, do you think people will run out of things to write soon?
#16
So you have 12 notes to choose from for your first melody note. Then another 12 for note two so that's 144 possibilities. Another 12 for note three (1728 possibilities), four notes (20,736), five notes (about 250,000), six (about 3,000,000), seven (36,000,000), eight (400,000,000)...

and that's just eight note choices, no mention of the what chords underlie the notes, not mention of rhythm or lyrics. There's really nothing to worry about; the possibilities may as well be infinite.
#17
You only think of 12 notes, but then you limit yourself to one aspect on music.

What about rhythm? Rhythmic combinations?

What about what notes against what chords or notes?

What about the order of said chords?

What about instrumentation?

Play the typical downstroked metal riff on a piano, just hitting an E note. You will notice that the entire essence has disappeared.

Likewise playing mozart on an electric guitar. 9 out of 10 times it has lost all it's depth and essence.

Which lead to playing dynamics, what notes you accentuate and how makes all the difference.

Then there finally is the disregard of note sequences altogether.

A lot of electronic music has barely any "interesting" musical motifs and development, at least not like an orchestrated piece, yet it remains extremely popular music due to the sounds being used.

And there are literally infinite sound textures and combinations.

This is also part of timbre, and again how it is used.

Now how many combinations of these things are there, and in what amount.

This will most certainly lead to infinity if not at least close.

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#18
i don't think it is. there are 12 notes sure, but there are many other things you can do with music, it's not just 12 notes. rhythm in my opinion is probably the most important part. it's HOW you play something, and that's really what makes a difference. also there are a lot of notes in between those 12 if you want to experiment with those.

also music has been pretty important in human evolution. it's interactive in a way other art forms usually aren't and the ones that are, usually involve music in some way. music can change the mood of almost anything. i'm sure you may have seen those things on youtube where they show you a picture with one piece of music, and then another. the mood of the picture totally changes even though only the music has changed. i like tapping into that. with music, you can change someone's mood, connect with people you don't know, you can make people want to move, and in some cases make them attracted to you :P

personally i like the idea of moving people emotionally, mentally, and physically. i also just find a lot of enjoyment from playing. i also like the idea in taking part of an ancient tradition. i think all humans are musicians and artists by nature and i like tapping into that. also, the closer you look at nature the more you see that most things are just particles vibrating. music is all about vibrations so to me i kind of feel more connected with things when i play, almost like i'm doing what the universe was created for or something. i like the idea that humans can take random vibrations from anything and make it into something that sounds amazing. kind of makes you feel like god or something how you can create from nothing. music is kind of like the language of the gods or the universe to me. maybe that's all silly hippie talk, but whatever that's basically how i feel about it.
#21
TS, you could just have listened to some of your favorite songs. How many of them sound the same (I bet none of them)? Many pop songs use the same four chords in the same order but they still sound like different songs. They may even use very similar melodies. There's so much more to music than note choice.

And even if you used the same melody as in some other song, you could always change the rhythm, chords and instruments and it would sound completely different.

IMO people focus too much on melody. That's not all there is to music. Of course that's the stand out part that you remember from the song but a song is more than just a melody. We get questions about what scales to use to sound like [insert a famous guitarist]. It's not all about the note choice. Kirk Hammett would sound like Kirk Hammett even if he didn't play pentatonics all the time. Many people look for new scales because their improvising sounds "boring". More notes =/= better melodies.

/rant
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#22
I know that humans aren't exactly total-comprehensive possibility oracles, but why do we have to be restricted to this whole twelve note thing? :c

I mean, you can make music with just a select few of the twelve chromatic tones (7-8 notes in many conditions, even with a visit to the dominant key ), but that's really nothing in the grand scheme of things. There are whole *orders* of equal temperament music which have not been written nor heard yet by humans, as well as plenty of things that have not even an afterimage of equal temperament in them. You can also certainly make music without any real pitch variations (drum-corp music), and there are genres of music which care not a mote for rhythm in any salient way (ambient, noise, etc.).


I'm interested, for instance, in the idea of music using pitch continuums (or perpetual glissando, if you want to call it that). Now, this is something that I can in no way pull off without good software, a theremin, or a heck of a lot of practice on a fretless string instrument, but the general principle would be: have a primary melody consisting of movement within a pitch continuum that can be modeled as a mathematical function of pitch with respects to time - at least piecewise, not unlike a spline or something. Then, additional voices enter which are derivatives or integrals of that function; entrance may either b synchronous with the primary melody, or delayed according to perhaps an aesthetic of canon or fugue. The end product would either sound really hideous or really stupid, but either way it would be something about which I cannot help but be curious.


Anyway, music ain't nothin' but a thang. The only thing dictating to you what you can and cannot do with noise and sound are conditioning and comfort.
You might could use some double modals.
#24
I've read each response closely, and I'm taking these bits of wisdom all to heart as I try to expand my mind.

Thank you all for taking the time to help me understand!
#26
Don't blame the music for your shortcomings.

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#28
Well..i have asked myself this question before. Than quickly realized it was a very dumb question..all you have to think about is sound. Your original question is how can you express yourself? Immediately i think of moods. When you are listening to a song...surely you dont go..."well every songs the same because theres only 12 notes." When you are sad..you listen to a certain band or type of music. When you are happy or pumped up or whatever it may be...you listen to another. If you write music like everything is the same because its 12 tones..well..lets just say you got another thing coming. Is susan boyle the same as megadeth? And one answer you could say is yes because theres only 12 tones. My response..use your ears, bud. Artist use these 12 tones in such a way..that anything is possible. Music has been around forever and you think its all the same? Dont be that guy..
#30
No you won't run out of note combinations but yes, music can be a bit limiting when you need to express yourself. You may only express very general moods: sad, happy, uplifting, dark etc. That's why you got the lyrics for the more specific stuff. And lyrics do contribute greatly to the mood of the song too. If you listen to a song with the vocals removed it might sound much more "generic".
Last edited by Sethis at Sep 20, 2013,
#31
^ Actually IMO music is a lot more powerful than lyrics (in emotional way - I mean, remove the music from a movie and it would feel strange - music helps you feel certain feelings and that's why there's music in movies). I don't really care about lyrics that much but certain music just makes me feel a certain way. The lyrics may play a part in it but as I said, I don't listen to them that much. Some songs can get me emotional but that's only (or mostly) because of the music part, not the lyrics. Also different people feel different when they listen to a song.

A song that has lyrics and you remove the lyrics will not sound good with them because at the same time you remove the vocals that play the main melody. But instrumental songs don't have lyrics and they don't sound any more "generic" than songs with lyrics. Actually they are usually more complex than songs with lyrics (because they need to be more interesting not to bore the listeners). Songs with lyrics are kind of easier to write because they can have a more simple structure and more repetition without getting bored. Many times lyrics are there for just using vocals as an instrument - not all lyrics are meaningful.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
#32
Most lyrics have some kind of meaning even if it's shallow and crappy unless it's some kind of beatboxing. Instrumental songs are certainly a different thing.

But I basically agree with your first paragraph. Music is very powerful in conveying emotions but it's only the most basic ones. Lyrics explain what the fuss is all about. I think that's why a lot of people can't stand instrumental music, they may feel some things but they're not able to really connect to it. I used to not really appreciate lyrics too but, trust me, when you finally find some really great lyrics combined with great music the result can be amazing. I feel I can enjoy the songs much more.
Last edited by Sethis at Sep 20, 2013,
#33
^ I have started paying more attention to lyrics recently. But I have always listened to the music part of the song more. Lyrics to me are words to sing along with the song. Yeah, and of course most lyrics have a meaning but in many songs they are just something that the listeners can sing along with. They also make it possible to use vocals as an instrument - without any words vocals would sound pretty stupid.

I like lyrics that make me smile. Many people don't consider lyrics by bands like AC/DC and Kiss that "genius" but some of their lyrics just make me smile. They aren't too serious. And I do appreciate songs with lyrics - most music I listen to has lyrics in it - but I'm not just that much of a lyric guy. I like some lyrics but the music part just means a lot more to me.

Yeah, many "ordinary" people may not be able to connect with the song if it doesn't have lyrics. Maybe it's more like a musician thing. You start appreciating melodies and instrumental stuff a lot more when you are a musician. But I know a lot of people who for example think Metallica's best song is "Orion". And not all of them are musicians. Maybe people who can't stand instrumentals listen to some more mainstream stuff. But I know a lot of people who also like instrumentals. My favorite songs aren't instrumentals but they have great musical stuff in them.

I would also like to say that the emotion isn't all about lyrics. It's very much about who sings the lyrics and how they sing them. If the singer can add emotion to what he/she sings, it doesn't really matter what the lyrics are about. A good singer can make you feel certain way. For example many Led Zeppelin songs have half improvised lyrics but Robert Plant has lots of emotion in his singing. So IMO it's not that much about what you sing, it's about how you sing it. Of course terrible lyrics are terrible and good lyrics are good, no matter who sings them. But to me the lyrics by themselves are never that special. I need to hear them with music.

Oh, and music makes you feel different emotions than lyrics IMO. Without the music the lyrics wouldn't feel the same. Some feelings can't be explained. You just feel something when you hear music.
Quote by AlanHB
Just remember that there are no boring scales, just boring players.

Gear

Bach Stradivarius 37G
Charvel So Cal
Fender Dimension Bass
Hartke HyDrive 210c
Ibanez BL70
Laney VC30
Tokai TB48
Yamaha FG720S-12
Yamaha P115
Last edited by MaggaraMarine at Sep 20, 2013,
#34
Lyrics are garbage

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#35
@Xiaoxi: yes to that ^

@JRF: Thanks for the tip-off. Though I've already heard of and researched Shepherd tones, I find them refreshing to hear, more often than not. My interest goes beyond Shepherd tones, however. A Shepherd tone to the sort of thing I'm imagining is comparable to demonstrating the note C to a class of beginner music students and calling it the beginning for everything else: it's entirely valid and true, but it doesn't point at anything else: it's not a vector. If you take off the linear and static change in pitch of a Shepherd tone glissando and replace it with a more lively and dynamic ground, then form other continuum melodies around it (just like regular intervallic polyphony, no catches here), then that would be much closer to the object of my interest. Thanks again for the quick point, though.
You might could use some double modals.