Words and Music

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, and its 1993 addenda, includes approximately 470,000 words.

It is calculated that 171,146 of those words are in common use. (Words that are in uncommon use are things like lunting, or walking while smoking a pipe, a word that you’ll now want to use although are unlikely to find an opportunity to do so.)

Shakespeare used more than 20,000 words, invented some 1,700 (including bedroom, critic, fashionable, gossip, kissing, lonely, rant, undress and worthless, which themselves could be worked into some clever poem).  The Folger Shakespeare Library has it that he wrote “at least 38 plays and over 150 short and long poems.”

Let’s say that back in Shakespeare’s day there were a total 400,000 words. This means that he used 5% of all of the available words in the English language to write what are widely considered some of the best works in the English language.

While you consider that, you might go lunting.


“There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify—that’s 22 million songs a year—and there’s only 12 notes that are available.”—Ed Sheeran

Certainly no Shakespeare, Sheeran is not exactly a slouch. He’s released five studio albums, 17 EPs and moved more than 150 million units.

Largely—or perhaps entirely—because of his success, Sheeran is repeatedly sued for claims of copyright infringement.

After all, the man has an estimated net worth on the order of $200 million, so a given music troll undoubtedly imagines a potentially huge payday.

But think of the tsunami of songs that are not only new, but which includes the millions that have been recorded since 1888, when the first song, aptly named “The Lost Chord,” was recorded.

(It is somewhat ironic that Ed Sheeran plays himself in Danny Boyle’s 2019 film Yesterday, which is about a musician who was transported to an alternate reality where the Beatles don’t exist and becomes immensely popular doing their music as though it is their own (frustrating the hell out of Sheeran, who does exist in that universe, too), so in effect it is a tale told of plagiarism.)


The abstract for a  study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, “Some Exploratory Findings on the Development of Musical Tastes,” is:

Preferences toward popular music appear to reflect tastes acquired during late adolescence or early adulthood. In an empirical investigation of this parsimonious inductive proposition, both the aggregate results (R = 0.84) and the disaggregated findings (R = 0.46) suggest that the development of tastes for popular music follows an inverted U-shaped pattern that reaches a peak in about the 24th year. Possible explanations include intrinsic components (e.g., a developmental period of maximum sensitivity analogous to the critical periods documented in ethological studies of imprinting) and extrinsic components (e.g., social pressures from one’s peer group that reach peak intensity during a particular phase in one’s life cycle).

Which can be interpreted as when you were young and listening to music, you found something that resonated well with you and whatever that was, it essentially stays with you for the rest of your life. To be sure, there are some new things that appeal, and some old things that make you wondered how it is possible that you could have once enjoyed that. But there is likely to be an overall consistency in what it is that you listen to, even if whatever it is is something that went straight to your heart when you were 17. (Oddly enough, while that sticks with you, whatever else happened when you were that age is probably lost to time or has completely changed: you might have had a taste of Barolo and spit it out because it struck you as being too sour; now your palate can’t get enough of it.)

Our pliable youth results in our being formed in a way so that what we are now is the consequence of what might have been thought of by others as nothing more than a fleeting obsession.


The music that we love has only so many notes. There are only so many words. Yet that music for each of us—because whatever it is that I like isn’t necessarily what you like and most certainly doesn’t resonate with someone like Henry Melrose (whom we haven’t seen here in quite some time, though he may have something of note soon)—transcends the number of notes and words and becomes, in itself, something that is special. To us.

And will, in certainly many cases more than we would have ever imagined, stay that way throughout our lives.


“The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”

The Merchant of Venice

2 thoughts on “Words and Music”

  1. Yeah, I’m not as omnivorous as I was at 15-25. But things can strike you at moments later, even if your horizons shrink. Went recently to nostalgic but still vital concerts from bands I learned of 30ish (Jon Spencer) and Libertines (40ish). And if I had a chance, I’d go see Drive-By Truckers (from about the same time as the Libertines), because I never have, even though I lost interest in them. 50ish-plus, it’s Lizzo, although she kinda slipping, too.

  2. Haha, can’t stop, won’t stop. No one asked, but the Pantheon is occupied by those from before my time: Hank, Patsy, Beatles, Al Green. Which were all in heavy rotation 15-25.

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