Infinite Enjoyment with Finite Resources

Have you ever thought about the miracle of music? OK, some might object to the world miracle, but I’m talking about music, something where transcendental terminology is appropriate.

On a piano you have 88 keys. Instruments can go higher (violin) or lower (organ), but with the same repeated 12-note octave everything in western music is created.

Thing about that. 12 notes, repeated over and over, at higher and lower frequencies. It’s such a small working set! How many melodies can you create in one octave?

More importantly, how many beautiful melodies can you create? Thousands of composers over thousands of years have proven that there is no limit to the originality possible with these limited tools. Of course, there are accompanying tools: instruments, rhythm, and personal style. But always with the same 12 notes.

And an infinity of beauty is possible because of it. Granted, our notions of what art is beautiful change over time, but who denies the beauty of War and Peace, Les Misérables, The Last Supper, Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, or anything by Rembrandt? Beauty grows, never shrinks.

Now imagine if there were infinite numbers of keys–how would that change things? What if we doubled the resolution of the notion of half-step (F toF#, for example) to a quarter step?* 8th step? 16th step? I don’t think this will inspire more creativity (at least not creativity that produces beautiful works of art). Too many options will spoil the landscape–clutter it up so much that not only can we not understand music produced like this, but creating it becomes onerous–there are way too many possibilities. The mathematical framework of music forces us to contain our creativity within bounds of structure that “make sense” to our minds, that allow us to understand, dissect, and enjoy.

The modern notion that lack of constraints promotes creativity is a false one. No constraints means less thought and feeling has to be put into work.

I hand you a canvas and tell you to paint your best work ever. What will you do?

You might ask–“What is the subject of the painting?” I respond–“Anything.”

You can’t work like that. Of course, you might come up with a theme yourself, but now you’re constraining yourself along a certain path.

Another example: in the 20’s Hollywood had no movie-making constraints. There were no censors. Do you remember many movies from the 20’s? In the 30’s, constraints were imposed by the government, forcing Hollywood to clean up its act. How many movies are memorable from the 30’s onward? A lot, even to my young mind. I think a case could be made that dissapearing constraints now is creating the same dull period in Hollywood that existed back in the 20’s. Sure, you can make anything you want, but who is actually going to care deeply about it?

Software development thrives under these conditions. Software developed with no or few constraints quickly looks like garbage and is much less useful. Impose coding constraints, design constraints, interface constraints–all these RULES you have to obey–and your code will become artful. Look in all the books on the subject of turning average programming into craftsmen, artists, what-you-will–the books mostly teach you RULES to follow, lines to stay within.

Coloring outside the lines is fun every so often, but you rarely frame it and call it art.

* Of course, continuous instruments such as strings can do this, but it’s not standard musical technique.

1 thought on “Infinite Enjoyment with Finite Resources

  1. Alix

    Ok – Charlie Chaplin was a 1920s thing!

    Another variable you should keep in mind:
    – Sound was first used in 1921 and was very experimental throughout the 20’s BUT didn’t become mainstream until the 30s. I think thats just one reason why we don’t remember movies from the 20s. I know some people who can’t sit through a black and white movie – they def. couldn’t sit through a silent one!

    Oh – Steam boat Willy (mickey mouse appearance) was the first Disney movie with sound(well – it was a cartoon sound is much easier on cartoons) – that was in the 20s and a lot of people know about that.


    oh – and I think they are a lot more constraints on movies now (money is an even larger constraint now!) People can’t make whatever they want… the writer has to compromise his script with the director and the overpaid sack of bones that plays the main character. They have to compromise with whoever’s backing the movie finacially… blahblahblah. Oh – and it’s not about making movies; it’s about making money. THAT’S why it’s so horrible now (except for Tim Burton, but you are totally aware of my Burton/Depp worship).

    and tv wise – the FCC is going TOTALLY crazy!

    I don’t mean to tear apart anything – I think I’m jut purposefully distracting myself from work… (yes – I’m at work now)

    I’m gonna go back to work now and try to steer clear of shiny things…

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