Pharrell vs Franz Ferdinand – plagiarism or coincidence?


Here’s the new Paloma Faith single, ‘Can’t Rely On You’. It has been suggested that it may be similar to Franz Ferdinand’s 2004 single ‘Take Me Out’.

In January this year Alex Kapranos tweeted “Hey @Pharrell – I love your tunes. If you want to borrow a riff, just ask…”

Let’s take a look at the notes.

Riff - Take Me Out

‘Take Me Out’ – the main riff in the original key of E minor.

Riff - Pharrell

‘Can’t Rely On You’ in its original key of B minor.

Riff

Here’s the ‘Can’t Rely On You’ riff transposed into the same key as ‘Take Me Out’ for easier/fairer comparison.

Both riffs aligned note for note. The transcription of 'Can't Rely On You' has been transposed into the key of E minor for easier comparison.

Both riffs aligned note for note. The transcription of ‘Can’t Rely On You’ has been transposed into the key of E minor for easier comparison.

They look and sound similar – but does this mean that Pharrell has copied Kapranos’s riff? Let’s look at the objective facts.

  • Take Me Out is seven note events (G E E D B D E). These appear on the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 11th and 13th semiquavers of the bar of 4/4.
  • Can’t Rely On You uses all of the same pitches and all but one of the rhythmic placements (the second ‘D’ is played one semiquaver earlier).
  • Can’t Rely On You adds three extra notes (E, E and D, on the 11th, 15th and 16th semiquavers of the bar).
  • Both riffs occur in the same harmonic context – that is, over the home minor key ‘i’ chord.

Discussion

They are both simple minor pentatonic riffs, so anyone composing this ‘type’ of riff would be using the same 5-note palette from which to choose pitches.

But the similarity is certainly striking. Can’t Rely On You copies some very specific and arguably (in combination) unusual characteristics of the ‘Take Me Out’ riff, including starting on beat 2 on the minor third, identical pitches for the first seven notes, a distinctive rhythmic pattern (a rest, 2 quavers, 2 semiquavers, after which there is a slight rhythmic deviation). And ‘Take Me Out’ is a very well-known song so it is extremely unlikely that Pharrell/Faith did not recognise the similarity.

So is it possible that two composers could have made the same note choices independently of each other?

An independent research study in (Frieler and Riedemann, 2011) suggested that independent creation in popular music is possible, and found under experimental conditions an example of two arguably similar melodies. I was unconvinced by their conclusions – the full research paper notated the melodies that were composed by the study’s participants, and there were similarities but also a number of differences, which would have served to make the melodies appear noticeably dissimilar – more dissimilar than most examples found in US and UK melodic plagiarism case law. Certainly their study did not show any similarities of the specificity that appears in the Pharrell/Kapranos example.

This is a difficult one to argue either way, because the riff is so short and because there are slight dissimilarities. My view is that copying has taken place – there are just too many coincidences (literally – that is, notes that coincide). Kapranos has decided to let it lie anyway. It might be possible to put this one down to cryptomnesia.

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