It has been suggested that some day all the melodies available to us from the 12 tones of the Western scale will be used up. Indeed, how many melodic possibilities could there be in this seemingly short stretch of notes? The truth, of course, is that we are nowhere near exhausting the melodic riches contained in the musical scale.
Further, when octaves, modes, rhythm, harmonies, dynamics, tempo and style are considered, one realizes that mere notes on a scale are only the starting point of music, like a preliminary sketch of a completed painting. But even considering just scale steps, the melodic potential is mathematically limitless, like numerical combinations of the same set of digits.
A good way to illustrate the endless possibilities is by comparing melodies that contain similar phrases, yet sound completely different because of their respective musical contexts. So, for instance, the Tinker Bell leitmotif from John Williams’ score for the movie “Hook” begins with outlines of a 2nd inversion tonic minor chord (Bbm). In Modern Talking’s “Brother Louie”, we find almost the exact same (tonic) chord tone melody, only here it is Ebm. These compositions aren’t even remotely alike; both have different tempos and styles, with instrumentation and moods worlds apart, yet both contain almost identical melodic elements.
Countless other instances of similarities between ostensibly unrelated compositions have been observed, often with undue accusations of copyright infringement. For example, Queen have been accused of plagiarizing a section of Aaron Copland’s famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” for the chorus of their classic “We Will Rock You”.
A similar situation occurs when comparing the beginning of the verse in The Beatles’ “All My Loving” and a particular transition in “Kathy’s Waltz” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. However, instead of suggesting actual appropriation of intellectual property, these examples only demonstrate further that matching melodic phrases can be virtually unrelated in terms of mood, style or harmony.
All of this isn’t meant to suggest that there haven’t been instances of deliberate theft of melodies. However, cryptomnesia is also to blame for many of history’s melody-lifting. If we stick just to the Beatles, we have at least two such instances. First, We have Paul McCartney’s timeless “Yesterday“, which musicologists have traced to Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” and Nat King Cole’s and Frankie Laine’s “Answer Me, My Love”. However, the link is legally tenuous. The connection seems to be more visceral than anything else; McCartney, at worst, imitating in sincere flattery.
A more unfortunate example of subconscious plagiarism involved McCartney’s bandmate, George Harrison. The resemblance of Harrison’s solo hit “My Sweet Lord” to “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons was so uncanny that litigation promptly followed its release. But cryptomnesia or dishonesty should not obscure the compositional reality of the sheer mathematical inexhaustibility of the melodic well.
In closing, an interesting observation occurs when looking at the juxtaposition of melodic phrases such as John Williams’ pixie theme and “Brother Louie” above. The real musical similarities are to other works in their authors’ repertoire. A comparison of Williams’ piece with a certain motif also performed on the celesta from his “Home Alone Overture” makes this clear. Just as comparing “Brother Louie” to other songs by Modern Talking, which for the most part seem to sleep-walk through the same chord progressions.
Such similarities are pretty obvious but the point is that they’re the only real musical limitations, whereas recurring melodic elements are not. Even a versatile composer is always ‘limited’ by his inadvertent idiosyncrasies; i.e. signature style. This hardly constitutes a problem. True confinements result from hackneyed conventions such as predictable chords.