Week 351: “Stardust” by Nat King Cole

Here’s a strange question to kick off your week: will we ever run out of new songs?

The logical part of my brain says ‘yes.’ Given that there are only so many notes we can hear, and only so many combinations of those notes, then it follows that the number of possible pieces of music is finite.

A few industrious people have tried to use mathematics to determine just how finite music might be. This video is a good starting point if you like math and music, and especially if you like close-up shots of guys with beards.

But even though the logical part of my brain thinks music is finite, I have trouble believing myself. A different part (instinctual? spiritual? nonsensical?) tells me we will never run out of music.

And I think the proof can be found in tunes like Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”

This song has been recorded an estimated 1500 times. Fif. Teen. Hundred. If you assembled a playlist of all those versions, you would have to listen for more than three days straight to hear all of them.

And yet, it’s hard to listen to more than a couple of versions and come away concluding that they’re all the same. The context is different. The instrumentation is different. The quality of the voice, the tempo, the quirks of the recording equipment. Sure, it’s the same song. But it’s different music.

So with regards to the whole “will we ever run out of new songs” question, I think we need to take into account that songs are different when filtered through different performers, genres, and eras. There’s more to it than calculating the possible combinations of notes.

A strange thing I’ve come to realize: the longer I hunt for music to feature on this blog, the less worried I am about the finite nature of music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The opening. As far as I know, Nat King Cole’s version is the only one that begins with these awesome, ominous chords.

2. Cole’s voice. Somehow it’s got both clarity and grit to it. Like a 50s news reporter who’s woken up a bit too early.

3. The closing cadence. It’s as unexpected as the opening, but more optimistic.

Recommended listening activity:

Taking a really close look at your own fingerprints.

Buy it here.