I was interviewed this week by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper about the alleged similarities between Sam Smith’s new James Bond movie theme song ‘Writing’s On The Wall’ and Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. This blog post is a more detailed version of that analysis.
[If you’re wondering why The Carpenters appear in the above playlist, all will be explained shortly].
Lots of people around the web have been pointing out that the end of WOTW’s verse makes them want to go straight into the chorus of MJ’s ‘Earth Song’, and on listening to the tracks it’s easy to hear what they mean. It’s interesting, though, that although the ‘feeling’ of the end of WOTW’s verse is reminiscent of Earth Song for some listeners, there are only actually three notes that have the exact same pitch – and these notes are not placed at the same point in the bar.
The songs are in different keys – Earth Song is in Ab minor and WOTW is in F minor. When comparing melodies, it’s helpful to ‘normalise’ this difference by notating both songs in the same key, so that any similarities or differences are more visually apparent. Here’s the comparative/normalised transcription.
So, if there are no notes that are exactly the same (in terms of pitch, rhythmic placement and harmonic context), why are so many listeners crying foul?
There are two areas of apparent similarity. The phrases in the penultimate bar of each song’s verse, highlighted in the red rectangle above, both have 8 syllables and have similar rhythmic scansion (and there’s no more use in runnin’ / did you ever stop to notice). But the section that everyone is talking about is the rising phrase ending on a B flat note (this is something I gotta face / this crying Earth this weeping shore?). These respective phrases, although they have only three pitches in common (with different rhythmic placement), give an impression of similarity because of the way the phrase ascends to the strong Bb note, with the same underlying dominant chord (in the normalised key of Abm, Eb major).
The songs also feature what we might call ‘surface similarities’ – that is, aspects of the arrangement or performance that appear in many other songs, but are combined in each work in the same way. They are both sung in the higher register of the male voice; they are performed at a similar tempo (Earth Song is around 6BPM and Writing’s On The Wall is around 65BPM). They are also both have a sweeping, epic quality and a lyric where the protagonist expresses some form of regret. There are of course many songs that feature these elements, but in combination they contribute to a subjective impression of similarity.
There is one other fragment of similarity, and interestingly listeners don’t seem to have picked this up to the same extent, despite the notes lining up exactly. WOTW’s chorus drops down dynamically at [01:28] and at this point the phrase ‘how do I breathe’ has the equivalent notes, syllable count and rhythmic scansion as bar 2 of Earth Song’s verse ‘what about rain’ [0:51 in the full length version]. The rhythms for this four-note section are identical, with identical pitches of Eb, Db, Cb and Db. The underlying chord on beat 3 is different, but the melodic similarity, for a brief moment, may be apparent to the listener. Here’s the relevant section, key-normalised as before.
But methodology is all in comparative music analysis, and it can be abused. If you look hard enough, and work with small enough fragments, you can find similarity everywhere. In the Spotify playlist above, listen to the strings intro in WOTW followed by the first verse of Superstar by the Carpenters. Three notes of G, F and C below, in an F minor tonality. Coincidence? Er, yes.
Music analysis can only highlight the similarities and differences; it’s impossible to see inside the mind of a songwriter, and any accusation of melodic plagiarism usually has to demonstrate quite a high level of similarity between the works. There are melody similarities between WoTW and ES but there are also many differences; these melodic fragments and production/arrangement choices will certainly have appeared in other songs. Which leads us to the really interesting question – if no musical elements are identical, but the combinations of elements are similar enough to invoke allusion to an earlier work, might we describe the act of combining those elements as creative? Can composing consist simply of bringing together pre-existing ideas? Might we characterise all creativity in this way? (Arthur Koestler thought so).
Were Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes influenced by Michael Jackson? Quite probably – many great pop songwriters are. Would they have been familiar with Earth Song? Almost certainly – it was a worldwide hit and remains a classic. But is this an example of deliberate plagiarism? I’m not so sure. It depends on what you mean by ‘original’.
And what you mean by ‘composing’.
And what you mean by ‘copying’.
Copyright note for transcription excerpts: I claim fair dealing exceptions for the purposes of research, criticism, review and news reporting.