Motherboard has an interesting new piece about musical copyright law, and the fact that there are only so many musical sequences using half-step frequencies possible. What happens when they're all used up, and the copyright trolls take everyone to court for any song that even remotely resembles another one, just by virtue of the fact that it relies on the same music theory?
Think about Lana Del Rey accidentally ripping off of Radiohead, who had accidentally ripped off of the Hollies. It's not crazy to write a song that goes from the I to the extra tension of a Chromatic Mediant III before resolving on a IV, which then walks down to a minor iv and returns to the tonic.
(Or, in simpler terms, as Motherboard puts it: Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" ripping off of Tom Petty's "Won't Back Down")
To get around the potential future copyright trolls, Damien Riehl and Noah Rubin developed a MIDI algorithm to automatically generate a series of melodies, then released those datasets into the public domain using a Creative Commons Zero license. The method for achieving this is pretty neat:
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To determine the finite nature of melodies, Riehl and Rubin developed an algorithm that recorded every possible 8-note, 12-beat melody combo. This used the same basic tactic some hackers use to guess passwords: Churning through every possible combination of notes until none remained. Riehl says this algorithm works at a rate of 300,000 melodies per second.
Once a work is committed to a tangible format, it's considered copyrighted.
The Internet is always finding arbitrary new ways to compile ranked lists of musicians and their songs. Sure, the content mill demands it, as seen on Pitchfork, AV Club, Ranker, and so many other sites that have built their reputations on such systems. But it's our fault, too— we, the music-loving audience that we are, so eager to compare our preferences to others. No list is ever quite right; even our own personal Definitive Musical Rankings may change over time. Perhaps that's why we consuming new music lists every year, in hopes of finding that one true objective arbiter of our sonic truth.
That search ends today. Because David Steffen has finally found the answer, in his delightful new piece of epistemological fiction about the Horowitz Method, a metrics-based approach to ranking musical groups:
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But what mathematical measure? If we were talking about comparing one song with another, it might be easier, for the music itself is inherently mathematical–meter, tempo, time, number of notes, pitches. But a single musical group could have any number of songs, and the number could grow every day—what particular songs would one use to judge a group? Their newest? The whole body of their work? And some bands release songs so regularly that any conclusion drawn would have to be re-examined very frequently. And that’s not even to speak about what particular measure to use which, we know from personal experience, becomes a dispute of its own.
No, if we are going to compare musical groups and expect a somewhat stable outcome, we must not compare their songs, we must compare traits of the group themselves.
Siri provides the backing vocals for this catchy tune.
Image: YouTube/World Viral Videos
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