Sustainable Music

Recently I [saw] … a cake that bore the iced command, “Celebrate Sustainability!” Clearly the candle had been passed. For more than a generation, cakes at campus events have tutored students to “Celebrate Diversity!” Something has changed. … Diversity and sustainability have a complicated, decades-old rivalry. … Both are about repairing the world; both invite exuberant commitment; both are moralistic. … Sustainability set aside the driving idea of the original environmental movement, that we help ourselves when we clean up the environment. Sustainability shifts the focus to both the imagined future and the supposed needs of the earth itself. (more)

Green Is Far – What [do] the various “environmental” topics have in common[?] … They are mostly … at unusually large distances in space, time, and social relation from ordinary folks and concerns. (more)

In my enviro econ class we’ve come to concepts like “degradable,” “renewable,” and “sustainable.” People often get very concerned when they imagine that certain common practices can’t continue forever, and want to regulate them to extend how long they could last.  Interestingly, this logic is only applied to a few areas like oil, metals, and farms, but not to most of our industries and practices.

For example, consider the sustainability of music. Each new song sits somewhere in a range of originality, from very original to very derivative. The more new original songs are developed and marketed, the harder it gets to develop and market new songs that will be seen as relatively original. Song writers then become more tempted to develop and market recycled versions of old songs.  As the supply of original songs is slowly exhausted, the music industry slowly changes its focus from original to derivative songs.

Since original music cannot last forever, we face a “sustainability” question regarding whether we are using up the supply of original music too quickly, too slowly, or just right.  Formally, this question is very similar to questions of whether we are using up copper or farmland too quickly. Such things can also be reused, where all else equal reuse is less attractive than first use. But to most people, questions about the sustainability of music, or of novels or movies, seem silly, relative to the usual “serious” sustainability questions. Why?

My suggestion: sustainability is a far concept, about what happens on far timescales, so it makes more sense to people as applied to far things.  Near things are to be considered only on near timescales, people assume.

Added 9p: Jeremy points us to a very relevant short story by Spider Robinson.

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  • Will Sawin

    If we run out of new songs, we’ll … listen to old songs.
    If we run out of oil or metals, we have to reinvent our economy.
    If we run out of farms, we might die.

    Perhaps people are just being rational?

    I have recently wondered if the amount of good modern fiction which is self-consciously derivative is a sign that we have reached some kind of turning point.

    • Will_Sawin wins the thread. And beat me to it.

      Robin_Hanson, are you seriously saying there’s no obvious reason why “running out of ability to sustain humans’ existence” concerns people more than “running out of original music”?

    • I said nothing about “running out”, only about the higher costs of recycling stuff relative to getting it new. Either way you get stuff.

      • Prakash

        What is your take on negentropy in general and useful energy in particular? Recycling requires useful energy, right?

        Do you mention Energy Return on Energy Invested in your environmental economics class? It is a primary concern of the scientist and engineer types who populate the oil drum.

        These guys are into calculation of sustainability with many charts and simple, but boring mathematical calculations. These calculations are definitely in the near mode, and not in the far mode. You might be correct that the average person’s concern for sustainability is far, but there are a substantial fraction of people who’ve done the math and have concluded a malthusian future – a malthusian future in the next few decades, not the far malthusian future of your projections.

      • That’s nice. Unfortunately, you don’t get to ignore the “running out of humanity-vital stuff” issue just because you said nothing about it, given as that is the entire reason people care more about industrial/ag production sustainability than “music sustainability”.

        The answer is obvious, and I don’t see why it’s even puzzling in the first place. But please, feel free to convince me I’m missing something important here, and I’ll give you a gold-plated apology. As it stands, though, you’re just drawing a really bizarre analogy.

  • flimbob

    How absurd! Music is hardly a non-renewable resource. It also, like all information and no physical goods, is infinitely extensible. 100 million people can easily listen to one song, but one tomato can’t come close to feeding 100 million people.

  • William H. Stoddard

    I’m not sure that this is properly a “far” issue. I note that a recurrent pattern in the arts is that you have a new population of works and artists, and initially what you get is fairly simple and appeals to a naive mass audience. Consider, for example, first generation rock and roll. And then a generation or two later you have long boring guitar solos, and performers like Elton John who can do a brilliant pastiche of just about any established type of song—but don’t seem to have much of a core musical personality. Or consider the way that comic book superheroes spread out to occupy a certain range of imaginary configurations of powers, and now fall into recognized categories (the speedster, the brick, the mentalist, and so on), and it’s very difficult for anyone to invent an original concept. It seems as if it takes less than a century for any new movement in art to go from a Cambrian explosion to saturation of all the easily accessible niches.

    Of course, in some cases, wealthy or bureaucratic patrons accelerate the overelaboration of art, perhaps because supporting inaccessible art is a useful form of social signaling. But there also seems to be an inherent tendency of each new movement to pick all the low hanging fruit early and then bring out the ladders and the poles with hooks. I don’t see it as taking centuries or millennia.

  • Robert Koslover

    Music is permanently recyclable. Some of my favorite tunes come from old ballads, written hundreds of years ago, but sung with fresh voices today. Fear not. So long as humans exist in (more or less) our present forms, we will never run out of art, music, or interesting stories to tell each other.

    • oo

      It’s rather a question – will future folk be as interested in defining their identity with music? And what such music might sound like? Let’s not limit our imagination to melody and harmony. Experiences and memories of future folk might be better induced by other types of sounds.

      So I don’t see too much scarcity in the long run in arts from this point of view. I would say that I understand the point about choosing specific areas about sustainability – but it makes sense for me – a lot of people won’t be “possible to exist” – resource wars and migration might change rules on this planet quite a bit.

  • Curt Adams

    The issue is the sustainability of musical *originality*, not of music. Music can be replayed indefinitely. Very few people care about music originality other than the copyright-driven part of the music industry and a subset of music composers. If music originality is ever depleted (as opposed to moving on to new tonal systems or something of the sort) those people will be out of a job and the rest of us will not really notice. This is very different from running out of oil, fish in the ocean, lithium, or other important resources, which could be potentially catastrophic if substitutes – and eventually perpetually renewable substitutes – aren’t found in time.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Agreed. Musical originality is, though, an interesting surrogate topic for the question of what will eventually happen to innovation in general, a topic that Robin has posted about previously. For what its worth: In domains with exponentially large numbers of possible designs, including music, it is really unclear what the long term rate of discovery of the best designs will look like. Biological evolution also samples an exponentially large, but theoretically finite, design space – yet after hundreds of millions of years, it is still producing new species. To pick the opposite extreme, given a merit function for a binary string which just counts the number of 1s in it, even a rather dumb optimizer can find the all-1 string quickly, even for a trillion bit string – and that ends progress in that particular space.

  • I’d tend to disagree with Robin on this one, songs not only lay upon an axis of Originality but also of Quality. If a given piece of music is high in both, its staying power in essentially inexhaustible; take Pink Floyd, Sinead O’Connor, Run DMC, Frank Zappa, and Prince as examples of this. High Quality, Highly Original works that people will continue to listen to so long as they are available.

  • Jeremy Leader

    Around 1983 Spider Robinson wrote a short story called “Melancholy Elephants” about the question of the sustainability of originality (in music and other arts):

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Thank you! As soon as I read Robin’s post, I remembered that I’d read some story recently on the same topic, but I couldn’t recall where. That was it.

    • You beat me to it.. “Melancholy Elephants” directly addresses the problem, and that of continually extending copyrights. I thought of it halfway through Robin’s post. It also mentions another problem with creativity and copyright that is often overlooked – that of derivative works. In Spider’s story one character points out that “West Side Story” could only be produced because “Romeo and Juliet” was not copyrighted.

  • komponisto

    First, I’ll register my annoyance at the fact that whenever an American (who isn’t a musician) says “music”, they always mean “popular music”, since no other kind of music exists…

    It’s actually relevant, because if you were thinking of art music, you might have realized that there’s (probably) no end to the potential for originality.

    The problem is that continued originality in the long run requires complexity to be increased, and popular music faces a complexity constraint: it is limited (approximately) by the intelligence of the average human.

    Solution: intelligence enhancement, and elimination of IQ variance. (Then there won’t even be a difference between art music and popular music.)

    • Should I re-register my own annoyance at people who, upon learning that person X doesn’t like music type Y, insists that the problem is on X’s end, in not taking enough university classes to fully appreciate Y, not noticing that any music type could be made “good” per this metric?

      • komponisto

        Silas, we really need to hash this out at some point.

        But in this context here, it should just be noted that I have no idea what Robin’s opinion of art music is, or if he even has an opinion on it, or what the specific origin is of any opinion about it that he happens to have.

        The most I can infer is that he’s not sufficiently familiar with it that it comes to his mind quickly when the word “music” is used.

      • On that, I agree.

        Btw, I’ll be in NYC from Oct. 30 – Nov. 21 (haven’t announced it on LW or my blog yet) so that might be a better opporunity to meed in person.

  • Unnamed

    Some people have been concerned about the sustainability of music.

    And it is very characteristic both of my then state, and of the general tone of my mind at this period of my life, that I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations. The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.

    • komponisto

      Yeah, this is entirely bogus.

  • I’m not sure if it has already been mentioned, but hasn’t Blues been relatively derivative (but incredibly good) for almost all its existence?

    Whereas a finite resource exists on a continuum of available to not available, that is not directly comparable to original to not original.

  • Mike Robinson

    There’s a huge untapped well of innovative music found in sounds that aren’t based on the harmonic series. For a long time the only notable example was traditional Indonesian music, but researcher William Sethares formalized the underlying mathematical principles of musical consonance and dissonance, allowing for composition of enjoyable music based on arbitrary sounds.

    Classical Western harmony is only a consequence of a much simpler rule:

    Examples here:

    • komponisto

      There’s a huge untapped well of innovative music found in sounds that aren’t based on the harmonic series. For a long time the only notable example was traditional Indonesian music, but researcher William Sethares formalized…principles allowing for composition of enjoyable music based on arbitrary sounds.

      With all due respect to William Sethares — whose work no doubt contains interesting insights — this is hugely misleading and absurdly overstates the contribution of a particular individual publishing in the early 1990s. Composers in the Western tradition have been experimenting with “music based on arbitrary sounds” ever since the advent of electronic media in the early 20th century; Indonesian gamelan music — itself by the way an inspiration to many Western composers — is far from being “the only notable example” of music with whatever specific property you’re thinking of. See electronic music, musique concrète, and more generally the history of 20th-century and contemporary art music. Theorists, meanwhile have been busy at work for decades publishing on this stuff; frankly, if William Sethares’ contribution were as unique as you imply, I’d have heard about it long before now.

      But that isn’t the most important point by a long shot. The most important mistake implicit in comments like the above is the assumption that musical innovation requires innovation in the acoustical inventory of musical sounds — and, even more fundamentally, the notion of a tight one-to-one correspondence between acoustical properties and musical properties, as if there weren’t a gigantic layer of complex human psychology intervening in the middle. It’s understandable if, a few thousand years ago, Pythagoras thought that the secret to musical understanding was classifying intervals into “consonant” and “dissonant”, but, good heavens, music theory — for all that discipline’s faults! — has long since moved on.

      Seriously, imagine suggesting that the (only) way to write original novels is to expand the phonetic inventory of the English language!

      • damn. I think you said that well.

  • The impact of exhausting all possibilities of original music on the non-composer will be very small until we extend our life-range quite a bit.

    Each listener can listen to all original songs known at least once. I expect the space of original music to be large enough to cover more than a human life-time even if the songs would play without any pauses.

  • evizaer

    There’s no problem with the “sustainability” of original music, because the objective originality of music doesn’t actually matter in practice.

    The only originality that is of practical significance is originality in an individual’s perception. “Have I heard music like this before?” As the amount of music grows, the chance of hearing objectively original music decreases, but people will still stumble upon a new band that sounds totally different from everything they’ve heard before and get the experience of originality.

    Objective originality doesn’t matter with regard to music, what matters is that listeners enjoy the music. A parallel problem to environmental sustainability with music would be a problem that would cause music to no longer be enjoyable. Because practical originality is subjective–and objective originality has little role in our enjoyment of music–human beings will continue to enjoy music indefinitely (barring some kind of radical brain transformation). So there’s not a problem with music’s originality that’s analogous to the environmental problem described by sustainability.

  • Josh

    If we run out of new music, we may be bored (unlikely).

    If we run out of a certain type of raw material, we may miss opportunities presented by unknown future uses for the raw material which may exceed the value of our present uses.

    In addition, “stuff” produced may not last forever. Our future selves might deplore past wasteful dispensation of precious raw materials to generate wealth for our younger selves or ancestors which we can no longer enjoy.

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  • It’s a question of amounts. Most geologists appear to think there is maybe enough oil, to take one example, left to last about 30 years at current usage rates. Even assuming they’re off by a factor of ten, 300 years is not all that long in the grand scheme of things.

    But to take music, let’s just have a look at a lower bound for the number of melodies. Assume that we only allow melodies within normal Western tonality. Further assume we don’t care at all about harmony, counterpoint, timbre, lyrics, or anything other than pure single-line melody. And to just reduce this to utter absurdity, let’s limit all the melodies we’re interested in to ones within a single octave, that are exactly eight bars long, in common time and contain nothing but quavers (eighth-notes).

    That gives us 11^63 possible unique melodies (eleven notes within a one octave range, sixty four notes within eight bars, divide the lot by eleven to give only those melodies that aren’t just a transposition of another one to a different key).

    11^63 is 4.05265062 × 10^65 different possible melodies. Assume there are seven billion people on the planet, and they all come up with one new melody every minute. That would mean it would take 1.10074928 × 10^50 years to exhaust the space of possible melodies – even of that ridiculously limited type. And that’s *without anyone actually ever having a chance to ever listen to any of them*!

    The adaptations required to adapt to running out of oil, or having to recycle copper, or whatever, may well come within the lifetime of people alive today. The adaptation required to adapt to not having any new melodies will never have to come, as should humanity or some humanity-descended lifeform even exist at that distant point, it will be so different from us as to quite possibly not even understand the concept of music.

    • komponisto

      An excellent point of course…but I have to point out that there are in fact twelve different notes within the octave in the standard Western pitch space. (As every student of twentieth-century music knows…)

      Leonard Bernstein presented a similar calculation (involving twelve-tone rows, if I recall correctly) in a book called The Infinite Variety of Music.

  • Dave S

    The entire “sustainability” meme is bogus. If something is not sustainable, it will not be sustained. QED.

    As Ron Popeil would say: But wait! There’s more!

    If a resource is diminishing, the free market mechanism steps in and raises the price, resulting in greater production; problem solved.

    The real problem is way too much government, resulting in too much unnecessary, costly regulation. Government used to govern for us. Now they want to govern us. There’s a big difference, and it’s not in our best interest.

  • I imagine the problem with the idea of “Sustainable Original Music” -is that each note can be held for an unlimited, and infinitey different amount of time.
    -And each note can be played with other notes -which can be held for infinitely different amounts of time.

    Plus, different instruments resonate differently.
    -so, you can use a different instrument to make completely different sounds… which can be held for infinitely different amounts of time… while being played simultaneously with other instruments playing notes for infinitely different amounts of time…..

    This creates a spectrum in which the availability of original “sounds” -is infinite.
    -What “sounds” we classify as “music” is a mental construct.
    -You could say it requires a consistent, fairly reoccuring “beat” -which I think is acceptable.
    …even then, I don’t see how that would reduce Originality of a potentially finite number of notes -which can be played for infinitely different amounts of time -with an infinite combination of other notes doing the same -with an infinite number of acoustical resonances –to the realm of “Finite“… and if something isn’t “Finite” -and is “Infinite” -then I don’t think “sustainability” of “originality” is an issue.

    -In summary:
    I like yer argument -and I don’t think music was an effective example.

    • I could be wrong, though… and maybe I’m just gett’n “uppity” -‘cuz my jaw gets tense sometimes -when I hear people talk about the “finite availability of originality in music“.

  • Hyena

    Adam Ozimek caught you here: we’re not concerned about the sustainability of original music because its exhaustion does not reduce our material welfare. Nor does it mean that we run out of new music on a personal level, since we must first hear the entire catalog. Moreover, as long as derivative works are better, we’re still marginally increasing utility by upgrading songs.

    It’s not the same for raw materials because it becomes progressively harder to repurpose them in terms of the quantity of individual consumption. Rivalrousness prevents us from all having as much of the available copper as we’d like (well, provided there isn’t a limit on how much copper we might desire). Music, old or new, is rapidly repurposed to new users without diminishing the resources of old ones; I did it this morning to Dvorak and to Depeche Mode, you simply copy and listen.

    In order for your analogy to work, you’d be arguing that the consumer level of the good is actually the processor of ores and maker of music. There might be an argument there, but I think most environmentalists have just enough Frauenfelderism in them at this point that they’d agree that the gradual exhaustion of human(ish) labor utility is a problem.

  • I wish I could assume this post was intended as parody.

  • The question isn’t whether all good music will have already been written when I sit down to write a new tune. Rather it is when I have maximally absorbed music from the past, am I still able to write what is to me an original good tune? I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. My main point is it is the capacity of the human mind to store music which is the proper limit, not the amount of music already written which could never concievably be processed by a single human musical author anyway.

    Even cosidering the broader pile of original music, it seems likely that there are more good tunes out there of finite length than there are baryons in the universe (about 10 to the 60th if I recall correctly), which also must put some practical measure of infinity on the number of good tunes.