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Comment author: komponisto 10 February 2017 08:55:28AM 1 point [-]

My experience is in the genre of rock music

Aieee! (The tradition of rock music is what you meant.)

However, I believe at the metaphysical level that this idea applies to, there is not a substantial difference in examining the nature of songs and other pieces of music.

Whether or not there is a substantial difference in the metaphysical nature of songs versus other kinds of musical works, there is certainly a substantial difference in the conclusions about musical possibility that one can draw if one's appreciative apparatus is exclusively (or near-exclusively) derived from mass culture, versus the case where one has a more refined artistic sensibility and greater powers of appreciation.

Comment author: stephen_s 10 February 2017 09:35:05PM 0 points [-]

I understand what you are saying, but I am still curious if you agree that there is a limit of distinctness in music? It seems difficult to argue that there is unlimited distinctness in music, and I don't think you are, but that you are instead arguing that it requires a certain level of the artistic sensibility to gauge the limits of musical possibility.

If so, who do you think / what type of person would have the requisite artistic sensibility to make such a judgment with some accuracy (but still imperfect)?

If you have the requisite artistic sensibility (I'm not saying you asserted that but I'm curious if you do think that), what is your position on where our current collective body of musical works is in relationship to an objective limit in the distinctiveness of new music?

If you do not think you have the requisite artistic sensibility, are you saying that from your perspective and my perspective that we can make no predictions on whether humanity reaches a certain limit of distinctiveness in music this decade vs in 10,000 years? What I mean is, is your position that there is no way for someone without the necessary artistic sensibility to estimate any limit in the distinctness of music?


Comment author: komponisto 09 February 2017 11:39:17AM *  2 points [-]

I understand that I was using the word "song" colloquially for a piece of music. I was not attempting to initiate a debate on the dictionary definition of a song or its characteristics in relation to other types of music.

The vocabulary you use conveys information about your background, experience, perspective, and conceptual framework -- in short, your epistemic state. Someone who un-self-consciously uses the word "song" in the way that you have is unlikely to be familiar enough with music to have good intuitions about its ultimate philosophical nature. My suggestion to you, therefore, is that before attempting to philosophize about the size of musical space and the proportion of it that is occupied by the mass-cultural products that seem to constitute the entirety of your experience, you acquaint yourself further with the higher realms of human possibility in this domain, if not others as well.

I don't mean this as a slapdown -- I genuinely think your beliefs would change if you had more knowledge.

This all being said, the question of the ultimate information-theoretic limits of interestingness in the universe is (plausibly) an important one, and (this being Less Wrong) I recommend the Fun Theory Sequence as a starting point.

Comment author: stephen_s 09 February 2017 06:16:36PM *  0 points [-]

I understand your point. My experience is in the genre of rock music (which is songs) and not in classical music, so my explorations into the metaphysical nature of music is based on extensive experience with songs (and not in other pieces of music). However, I believe at the metaphysical level that this idea applies to, there is not a substantial difference in examining the nature of songs and other pieces of music. That may make the perspective I'm coming from clearer to you, or we may have to agree to disagree.

I have not read the Fun Theory Sequence article, but you're right that is connected to this topic. I appreciate the link. Thanks for your comments!

Comment author: bogus 08 February 2017 04:35:26PM *  1 point [-]

but it doesn't seem like you're trying to engage with that nature of "what is a song?"

The comment you're replying to did exactly that, actually. Since you seem to have missed that part, here's a hint: a song is a piece of music that's supposed to be sung by someone, i.e. it has lyrics, and a vocal part. Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano (generally known as Für Elise) has neither: hence it's an instrumental piece, not a "song". (It's not even drawing overt inspiration from the song genre as a whole; but if it was, it might be somewhat sensible to call it a song by analogy/extension, as we do with Felix Mendelssohn's Songs without Words).

Comment author: stephen_s 08 February 2017 05:34:54PM 0 points [-]

To be more clear, putting pieces of music under different labels (bagatelle, folk song, house track, etc) doesn't have a bearing on this discussion of what is the metaphysical nature of a piece of music. I understand that I was using the word "song" colloquially for a piece of music. I was not attempting to initiate a debate on the dictionary definition of a song or its characteristics in relation to other types of music. Again, I would refer you to the metaphysical discussion that many of the other posters contributed to.

I understand that music categorization and music theory are a separate and important topic of which you may have an expertise in, but that is a different discussion.

Comment author: bogus 08 February 2017 04:35:26PM *  1 point [-]

but it doesn't seem like you're trying to engage with that nature of "what is a song?"

The comment you're replying to did exactly that, actually. Since you seem to have missed that part, here's a hint: a song is a piece of music that's supposed to be sung by someone, i.e. it has lyrics, and a vocal part. Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor for solo piano (generally known as Für Elise) has neither: hence it's an instrumental piece, not a "song". (It's not even drawing overt inspiration from the song genre as a whole; but if it was, it might be somewhat sensible to call it a song by analogy/extension, as we do with Felix Mendelssohn's Songs without Words).

Comment author: stephen_s 08 February 2017 05:15:21PM 0 points [-]

IE "what is a piece of music?" from a metaphysical perspective.

Comment author: komponisto 08 February 2017 10:15:39AM 1 point [-]

First of all, Beethoven's "Für Elise" isn't a song, it's a bagatelle; let's get the genre right. (The previous sentence also demonstrates the proper use of the word "genre", by the way.)

The rest of your comment is just a reaffirmation of your confusion of mass culture and culture tout court. I (might) agree that mass-culture's greatness-producing capacities have plateaued, but I don't look to mass culture as a source of artistic greatness, so I don't really care.

If you studied music in sufficient depth, you'd see the possibilities for yourself, and your intuition would switch from "music is almost exhausted" to "mass culture is really poor at generating musical value".

Comment author: stephen_s 08 February 2017 03:04:17PM 0 points [-]

You're failing to engage the question of the nature of songs and music as a metaphysical level. I agree that mass culture and dissemination of works is part of the discussion, but it doesn't seem like you're trying to engage with that nature of "what is a song?". (See a number of the longer comment chains by other posters who provided thoughts on this topic if you're not sure what is under examination besides mass culture and dissemination.)

Comment author: Hal 08 February 2017 03:20:43AM 1 point [-]

Right, that's a good point you're making about most points in song-space being worthless, and it maybe even shows that the multidimensional-space way of looking at things isn't really appropriate in this situation. Since I can't think of anything better, though, we might as well just keep talking about a "sparsely populated" space.

I think that distinction comes to core of the problem here: we're talking about a hugely vast space, where a hugely vast proportion of points in it are inconsequential. There's a battle going on between those intuitions of "hugeness;" for me, the space wins out, for you, the sparseness. It's probably not possible to reconcile these intuitions easily, as they're not immediately based on anything concrete. As unfortunate as the phrase is, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree (unless I'm totally wrong here, which is a possibility). For what it's worth, I'm less confident now in my opinion that music genres like "classical" and jazz aren't close to being filled up.

You're making a bit of a different point in this comment, though, which I think it's important to clarify. It seems to me to be far more likely that a specific genre that has existed for decades or centuries is filling up, than that music as a whole is anywhere close to completion. The two are very different claims.

You mention rap and electronica as being some of the "final genres" to be substantially completed, but think of where they came from, and why they are the most recent genres. Rap (or hip-hop, not really sure which is the more accurate term for what I'm talking about) came out of a period of profound social change, while electronica is only possible due to technological advances in the last 30 or so years. I don't think anyone would have been able to predict Skrillex, or anything like it, in the '60s or maybe even the '70s (though I'm unconfident about exactly when because my history is lacking).

Doesn't this suggest that it's most prudent to "expect the unexpected" when it comes to musical progress? I only gave a couple of examples, but I'm sure that more exist; generally, it seems like the emergence of new genres of music is a much less predictable process than the creation of songs within a given genre. You'd need quite convincing evidence to suggest that this time is different (barring some kind of civilizational collapse or "end of history"-style cultural equilibrium, of course).

Comment author: stephen_s 08 February 2017 05:34:28AM 0 points [-]

Even though we are of slightly different opinions, I'm glad we are on the same page of what I was trying to discuss and get thoughts on--this has been good. You're right that the sparseness I'm proposing is hard to judge and you can't break down the argument further. My perception comes from my experience in attempting songwriting in the genre of rock where I felt like after spending many hours songwriting that I could understand and perceive the boundaries of the genre/niche at an intuitive level from much trial-and-error--which isn't an argument to convince you or someone else (of course), but just to explain to you why it seems self-evident to me that the songs are very sparse in the space. That in addition to observing the factors I had mentioned before (limited period of best work for each band, declining output of distinct new styles/bands, etc).

Yes, you are right that there is a big difference between addressing older genres like classical and jazz vs current genres, but applying the same concept has led me to believe that the remaining genres will soon be completed as well--which I will do my best to explain, bear with me.

With rock music, much of my experience comes from time spent songwriting and exploring the niche, but also from observing the progression of rock music. One of the simplest factors to see in progression of the opening up of new styles in rock was changes / advances in production styles. So in the 50s, songs by rock acts like Elvis, Buddy Holly, etc were all recorded in Mono sound. That proceeded into the Beatles early work (eg "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"). Mono sound gave songs a distinct sound different than stereo sound, but was also more limited in general. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound technique did allow complexity in Mono (as best used by the Beach Boys in Pet Sounds) but it did not have as much potential as stereo in general. The Beatles then started recording in stereo sound. Partially because of the new larger stereo space, and partially just in tandem development, they (and others) opened up the door for much more varied sounds and instrumentation and styles. Led Zeppelin and early metal figured out how to record heavier sounding drums and fuller distorted guitars. The 80s brought reverb (big room sound) and synthesizers and different guitar sounds into rock (Van Halen etc). Nirvana's Nevermind's production helped usher in even heavier drums and bigger distorted guitar alternative rock sound that persisted into grunge and post-grunge sounds. In the 2000s, indie rock like Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, etc explored additional sonic textures, combining distorted guitar with heavy reverb and big spaces (along with many bands who pulled from sonic and production styles of previous decades within an indie rock sound). But from my judgment, 2009 was the last peak of new distinct indie rock bands and sounds (it was starting to decline after that).

In a way, the simplest way to view running out of rock music was to see that there was no further places to go with production techniques or the sonic environment or instrumentation of a song (in a distinct way). At the same time, Indie rock in the 2000s was more democratized than rock ever was before because technology and the internet allowed anyone to write and record music. But I think that democratization allows completion to happen at a faster rate.

In a similar way, rap appears to have maxed out production advances and is starting to run out of distinct sonic textures. Current rap, electronic, and pop music use similar modern production elements that are different than what was 10 years ago or in the 90s or in the 80s. It takes examination of production and the progress up until now, but it seems evident to me that there isn't going to be another large production breakthrough. That in tandem with the fact that current rap, electronic, and pop (or any music) is more democratized as ever, with millions of people trying to create the next great style of song, and it seems likely that these genres will be substantially completed in the next 5-10 years as well (somewhat using rock completion as a metric).

I agree that it is difficult to explain or prove, because most of the evidence that I'm explaining is really a complex picture of what I see as self-evident but can't be broken down further into a simpler argument. We probably will have to agree to disagree, but I'm glad you brought it down to this level of detail. Thanks!

Comment author: sleepingthinker 07 February 2017 09:33:58PM 0 points [-]

Well, if you look at it most stories since prehistory have a similar structure. Guys like Vladimir Propp or Joseph Campbell analyzed old stories and came up with basic elements that almost all of the different stories shared.

George Lucas was actually inspired to create Star Wars by reading Campbell's "A Hero with a Thousand Faces".

This shows that all stories share a common structure, so it is hard to be totally original. However the structure is so versatile that it allows a huge number of different stories to come out and seem fresh and original.

We have to separate this from what Hollywood is producing today. Studios have gotten lazy and are just chasing after the big bucks. So instead of taking a risk on something new, they instead invest in a plethora of sequels, reboots and sequels to reboots. I think that's where the problem is, not in being able to come up with anything new.

Comment author: stephen_s 08 February 2017 12:00:54AM 0 points [-]

Yea, I'm a fan of Joseph Campbell's ideas, and of course the great monomyth movies (Star Wars, LOTR, The Matrix, Harry Potter, etc). I agree that every story relies on structures that other stories use and nothing is fully original. Star Wars is a great example because it borrowed not only from the monomyth story, but from westerns, samurai movies, WWII movies, space operas, high fantasy (LOTR), science fiction epics (Dune), etc. Star Wars was great because it was really the perfection of the space opera genre, just like The Matrix was the ideal cyberpunk movie.

What I'm trying to get at is that on a long enough timescale, there is a limit to the distinct movie stories we can create. A great story like Star Wars is really like a complex puzzle, with hundreds of factors working together to make it a great movie. Do you think there are an infinite number of potential movies as unique/distinct/fresh as Star Wars or do you think the number is limited? Once I believed that the number is limited, then I started to wonder about how many distinct/fresh stories are left. And then I started to think of the possibility that perhaps movie studios are not putting money into trying to make the next new Star Wars or The Matrix because no one is writing those scripts, because there actually isn't a new Star Wars or The Matrix to create. In other words, the decline in new properties made more sense to me in terms of my idea on completion than that the studios have just gotten lazy or more conservative (which could be true as well).

The more in depth explanations in other replies are a better justification of the idea, this is more just the observation in relation to movies. Hopefully you get what I'm trying to get at. It is conceptual and not easy to explain, for sure.

Comment author: Han 07 February 2017 08:54:55PM *  2 points [-]

I really like your thread: thank you for writing me back!

I think you have good intuitions about how sound works. I don't think I can determine whether there's a consensus on what is good: I'd venture to guess that any audio humans can perceive sounds good to someone. A friend of mine sent me an album that was entirely industrial shrieking.

But I agree with you that there's a limit to the distinctness -- humans can only divide the frequency spectrum a certain number of times before they can't hear gradation any more, they can only slice the time domain to a certain extent before they can't hear transitions any more, and you can only slice the loudness domain to a certain extent before you can't hear the difference between slightly louder and slightly quieter.

We can make basically any human-perceivable sound by sampling at 32 bits in 44.1khz. Many of those sounds won't be interesting and they'll sound the same as other sounds, of course. But if nothing else, that puts an upper limit on how much variation you can have. In ten minutes, at 32 bits, in 44.1khz, you have about 840MB of audio data. You could probably express any human-perceivable song in 840MB, and in practice, using psychoacoustic compression like MP3, it would take a lot less space to do the interesting ones.

I think that for us to run out of music, the domain of things that sound good has to be pretty small. Humans probably haven't produced more than a billion pieces of music, but if we pretend all music is monophonic, that there are four possible note lengths, and twelve possible pitches (note: each of these assumptions is too small, based on what we hear in real music), then you only need to string six notes together before you get something that nobody has probably tried.

What I was really responding to were these ideas that I thought were implicit in what you were saying (but I don't think you thought they were implicit):

  • if you try every human-perceptible sound, most of them will sound bad. (we don't know if they'll sound bad because there's a ton of variation in what sounds good)

  • if you try every human-perceptible sound, most of them won't be distinguishable. (The search space is so big that it doesn't matter if 99.99% of them aren't distinguishable. We don't know, in general, what makes music ideas distinguishable, so we don't know how big that is as a portion of the search space. If you think that this comes down to Complex Brain Things, which I imagine most composers do, then figuring out what makes them distinguishable might reduce to SAT. see all the things neural network researchers hate doing)

  • we are good enough at searching for combinations that we have probably tried all the ones that sound good. (there are so many combinations that exhaustively searching for them would take forever. If the problem reduces to SAT, we can't do that much better than exhaustively searching them)

I think that some of the strategies we use to search for musical ideas without having to solve any NP-complete problems have dried up. Minimalism is one technique we used to generate music ideas for a while, and it was easy enough to execute that a lot of people generated good songs very fast. But it only lasted about a decade before composers in that genre brought in elements of other genres to fight the staleness.

After a couple hundred years, Bach-type chorales have dried up. (even though other kinds of medieval polyphony haven't) The well of 1950s-style pop chord progressions appears to have dried up, but the orchestration style doesn't seem to have. (If we think "nothing new under the sun" comes down to Complex Brain Things, then we can't know for sure-- we can just guess by looking around and figuring out if people are having trouble being creative in them.) A lot of conventional classical genres don't appear to have dried up -- new composers release surprising pieces in them all the time. (see e.g. Romantic-style piano. Google even did some really cool work in computer-generating original pieces that sound like that.)

When these search strategies die, a lot of composers are good at coming up with new search strategies for good songs. We don't know exactly how they do that, but modern pop music contains a lot of variation that's yet to filter into concert music, and my gut tells me that means the future is pretty bright.


Comment author: stephen_s 07 February 2017 11:29:45PM 1 point [-]

Yes, you are getting into the heart of what I'm trying to examine. This concept began to form for me as I was writing and recording rock songs and trying to create a distinct sound within that genre. New distinct music is largely created intuitively by people borrowing on the past but adding variation (like you said). But songs contain a more specific balance of factors than I think people realize, which makes a song more like a complex puzzle than just a complex combination of attributes. Many factors must sync together correctly including chord progression, melody, key, rhythm, vocal style, instrumentation, and audio production. But those factors are all limited in their distinctness (limited notes on a scale, limited chords, limited instruments, limited vocal styles). And for a song to work well, all the factors must sync correctly. If you put Elvis' voice instead of Kurt Cobain's on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", it might be funny but it wouldn't work as well. Kurt sings more like Paul Westerberg of the Replacements (listen to "Bastards of Young"), which is a specific distinct vocal style that they share (which works well for a certain type of style only).

So if you have 1000 (to be simple) vocal styles, 1000 chord progressions, 1000 combinations of instruments,....etc, it's not that each specific vocal style could be paired with each chord progression and with each combination of instruments, etc. In fact, it would be only very specific combinations that would work well. So, the songs that work seem to be extremely sparse within the search space.

Along the same line, if you look at rock bands, they usually have a period of 5-20 years where they produce their best work. It seems to be that they run out of good songs (the possible puzzle combinations of factors within their own style). A band like AC/DC recorded their best songs in the 70s and 80s, and then most of what they released after that just sounded like them repeating their sound but with diminishing results. If there really was a lot of untapped songs within a band's style, it seems like there would be at least a few counter examples of bands who produce the same high level of quality for 30 or 40 or 50 years, but I've never seen that happen.

And once you run out of new distinct factors (voice styles, or production styles, or instrumentation) then it seems like the potential for new distinct songs (as complex puzzles of those factors) also will run out. We have moved through genres over time, including better production in the last 20 years and more electronic aspects etc, but when will the well run dry?

It seems to me that with art (including music), we start with primitive attempts and instruments, but then we develop more complex music theory and new instruments, but then eventually we run out of new and our output will decline. While I was working on writing rock songs, I was noticing at the same time that bands I liked seemed to have declining quality of output, and there weren't new bands in different styles but of equal quality releasing music to fill the void. The rate of creation of new and quality rock songs and styles seemed to be in decline. I don't see there being a different method to unlock many other great songs or new styles than the intuitive method and trial-and-error that has been used for centuries; I think the well is just dry.

Anyway, the idea itself is interesting to me because if this concept applies to music then it seems like it would apply to all things involving creativity and discovery. That we can view all knowledge and creation as one thing (The Big Niche) that exists apart from whether possibilities have been created or not, and that it will all eventually be completed at some point in the future.

Comment author: bogus 07 February 2017 09:59:35PM *  3 points [-]

Also, I'm not saying that there is not infinite gradation of sounds or instrumentation, but there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds or instrumentation. Do you believe there are infinite distinct sounds or instruments possible?

This whole idea that you need "infinite variation", or rather arbitrarily large variation, if artistic endeavors are to be worthwhile in the near term is just weird to me. A big enough space is plenty enough to keep us all busy for the foreseeable future, and this isn't even accounting for the fact that art is in no small part about gaining a thorough understanding of such creative possibilities, as opposed to developing new 'creations' persay. After all, there's already more music in the world than one could feasibly listen to in a lifetime!

Comment author: stephen_s 07 February 2017 10:29:04PM 1 point [-]

Sure, I didn't mean to imply that art is just about new creations. There are many other values to art and creativity of course. Also, I agree that we are fortunate to have an abundance of music available. So don't take what I'm saying as a criticism of creativity or art, or not appreciating the value of them apart from newness. I'm more examining this topic in the interest of understanding human progress and discovery in general.

I agree that this idea is difficult to prove as of now, which is why I'm doing my best to explain my thought process as to what seems evident to me, and I'm appreciating the objections that others are raising. But if we get to the year 2200 and the majority of people still listen to music primarily from 1500-2050 (or whatever), then that does say something about our reality and human progress/discovery. It also is interesting to me that people intuitively view creativity as something open-ended and undefined (at least I did until a few years ago), when perhaps there is something objective and defined and limited about human discovery (which I now believe).

Comment author: Han 07 February 2017 04:48:34PM *  3 points [-]

I think two of your premises aren't necessarily true:

So if I hit random piano keys with my hands a few times and call it a song, the consensus of music listeners would be that Beethoven's Fur Elise is a better song.

Probably, but I think your example is a little bit too extreme to demonstrate your point. There are a lot of genres, like taarab, that won't sound like good music to you because of your cultural background. Acid house probably wouldn't sound good to people who were raised in the 1800s, either. There are commonalities between how people appreciate music, but people come up with new ways to introduce musicality to a piece really often, which means that it's hard to enumerate all the songs there could be.

If atonal or microtonal music suddenly got trendy, you'd come up with all kinds of new tone patterns we didn't have before. If people started thinking about timbre differently, we could come up with instruments we don't know how to listen to now. Both of these things happened after the first synthesizers came out. I don't think you can predict in advance what will make people think "this sounds good."

the general consensus is that the best classical artists are from over 50-100 years ago

The great classical artists of the time of Debussy and Ravel were musicians like Chopin and Beethoven. The great classical artists of the time of Stravinsky and Schoenberg were musicians like Debussy and Ravel. Reich and Glass had Stravinsky and Schoenberg. (and maybe Gershwin), and now we're venerating Reich and Glass. Arvo Part is probably going to get canonized real soon now.

I think that when you're talking about "classical music" you're talking about music that most people are only exposed to in curated form. It seems like when that happens, curators stick to examples that are really broadly accessible, which isn't a good way to get a picture of the whole genre. The last trends of really broadly accessible music were 1800s romanticism and 1960s minimalism, and 1960s minimalism doesn't seem old enough for curators to put it on the classical music shelf.

It's not like painting ended with Da Vinci, but today's public doesn't particularly like Liechtenstein, Warhol, Rothko, Picasso, and so on.

This doesn't undermine your point, but I think you might want to investigate modern concert music a little more before you make some of these assertions.

Comment author: stephen_s 07 February 2017 06:26:44PM 2 points [-]

I don't mean to press you on a point, but when you say in reference to musical consensus, "Probably, but I think your example is a little bit too extreme to demonstrate your point", I think it is important to say whether you believe there is any musical consensus of what is good, or if you believe there is zero consensus. The degree does not matter as to whether the point I'm trying to make is true. Is there any consensus based on how shared human nature interacts with physical sounds as to what is agreed upon as "good"? It seems difficult to argue that any consensus is completely arbitrary.

Also, I'm not saying that there is not infinite gradation of sounds or instrumentation, but there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds or instrumentation. Do you believe there are infinite distinct sounds or instruments possible? There isn't clear language for what I'm trying to get at, but think about how a violin is more distinct from a tuba than from a cello. Or think of it in terms of being similar to the visual spectrum of light: there are infinite gradations of color, but there isn't infinite distinctness. There are limits to the range of the visible spectrum of light, with the primary colors being most distinct from each other (but there is an infinite amount of gradation that can be categorized as sub-colors).

The point being that if there is an objective aspect as to what human nature appreciates as a song, and there is a limit to the distinctness of sounds (and other factors like rhythm, song structure etc), then there would be a limit to possible songs and a limit to possible songs that would be considered "good" by the general consensus (which I agree with you is very varied, but it is still non-arbitrary).

I think you are right to bring in painting or other forms of art to the discussion. What I'm really trying to do is explain a phenomena that I've observed in multiple forms of art. There is a pattern that appears to be taking place, that humans start out with very primitive forms of visual or auditory art, and then develop techniques and understanding to increase in complexity and open up new possibilities in art (like you refer to in your first couple paragraphs), but then the speed of development of more distinct works seems to slow down at a certain point and eventually decline. I agree that this observation is difficult to judge, but do you agree that there is a limit to distinctness? On a long enough timescale, (for example) wouldn't all classical music sound like a song that has already come before?

I appreciate the back and forth and your arguments.

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