The romanticism of vinyl – a skeptic’s view (BBC radio interview)

Close-up

Close-up of vinyl grooves, viewed under an electron microscope. Image from the Vinyl Factory.

I appeared on BBC local radio last week to discuss the ‘vinyl debate’. I’m a skeptic – in my opinion there isn’t a debate to be had, at least regarding sound quality (although I personally remember my own ‘vinyl years’ of 1980s album-buying very fondly).

The fact is that vinyl sounds worse (and is sonically measurably worse) than CD or even medium-bitrate streaming audio. The arguments have been rehearsed by both sides many times – the pro lobby likes vinyl’s ‘feel’ (fair enough) and ‘warmth’ (i.e. signal distortion and low/high frequency loss). The anti lobby likes sound quality. Here’s a summary of the pro arguments, debunked with some physics and history.

I was interviewed on the Graham Seaman show, discussing the history of vinyl and speculating about why people still like it despite its sonic limitations. Here’s the audio, in two parts of around 5 minutes each; it should play directly in the browser, or download part1.mp3 and part2.mp3.

The Impact of a good tune: Forensic Musicology as research

This article originally appeared on the Million+ blog website. Words: Joe Bennett.

Harrison

George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord was an early casualty of songwriter’s cryptomnesia.

The legendary conductor (and acerbic musical quote-mine) Sir Thomas Beecham once said: “a musicologist is someone who can read music but can’t hear it”. And it’s fair to say that, in terms of profile, musicology is not one of the highest peaks in the UK research landscape. Qualitative research in the arts generally can have a difficult time justifying its existence in an increasingly corporeal and impact-centred (some might say philistine) political agenda, and music has particular difficulties in this regard, being perhaps the most abstract art form of all. Sir Thomas’s view shows clearly and painfully how easy it is to accuse musicology of continually Dancing About Architecture. So it may surprise some readers to learn that my own field of research – creative processes and forensic musicology in popular songwriting – was part of an impact case study for my institution in REF 2014. [Read more…]

Christmas 2014 pop quiz

Name the song and artist. They are all from UK Christmas hits from the 1970s to the present day. In the spirit of Christmas past, all the music is played backwards.

Lana Del Love Theme #plagiarism? #songwriting #cryptomnesia

First 8 pitches. Lana is in Bbm. Nino is in Gm. Otherwise the same, at least in pitch terms. Could be cryptomnesia. Thanks to the eagle-eared Simon Troup of Digital Music Art for finding this one.

 

 

Stairway to Heaven and Taurus – radio panel discussion

Stairway to Heaven famously uses a chromatically descending A minor chord pattern, but was it too similar to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental ‘Taurus’?

I appeared on Voice Of Russia radio this week (the Brendan Cole show), talking about the Stairway to Heaven/Taurus  allegations of plagiarism. It was a long and wide-ranging panel discussion, also covering Oasis, Deep Purple, Coldplay, Gershwin and others. The panelists were:

  • Johnny Sharp, music writer for Mojo and Q magazine,
  • Andy Millmore, head of Litigation at Harbottle & Lewis, and has acted for music companies, book publishers, as well as other clients.
  • Chris Fielden, writer
  • Joe Bennett, dean of the School of Music and the Performing Arts at Bath Spa University and head of the annual UK Songwriting Festival.

Below are some quotations from the full 30-minute discussion. The podcast can be downloaded here (28MB) or press play below to hear it in your browser.

——–

JB: “The whole issue basically hinges around a four-bar piece of music played using a descending minor chord pattern…
“Yes, I believe he [Jimmy Page] copied it. […] It’s a riff he had access to, it’s a riff he heard recently and it’s not the kind of thing that would be terribly similar through coincidence.  The issue is whether the thing being copied was in fact owned by Randy California in the first place. Can you copyright a minor descending chromatically in half bars?”

AM: “Actually, I’m not sure that I completely agree with the way Joe has characterised the question here because I think it’s pretty clear that any musical work, any literal work which it’s a fairly low threshold of originality does belong as a matter of copyright to whoever created it. If it is entirely commonplace and standard and gone before then there’s nothing knew and original. But once you hit that low threshold you’re the copyright owner in that work…
“And then the two questions become – one is, was there as a matter of fact copying? From what we know of the evidence in this case is suggestive of the fact that there could have been copying or maybe subconscious copying – a concept that was recognised in the George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’ case where it was found that Harrison didn’t know that he was copying but nonetheless he was subconsciously…
“So let’s assume that Randy California gets them on that, and then the question is – is it a substantial copy? And that’s the legal test – is there a substantial reproduction here? And then you start getting into quality questions about what has been taken, what has been saved and what’s been reproduced.
“This is actually a very difficult question… I think the original could well be owned by Randy California notwithstanding that is a descending minor chord pattern because it’s the particular minor chord pattern in which his copyright subsists. Has that substantially been taken by somebody else?”

CF: “With the Led Zeppelin example, to me it sounds way too similar to be regarded as just gaining inspiration. The Randy California version actually sounds like a Led Zeppelin song played wrong and I know it’s Jimmy Page that’s supposed to have copied it – I think the line should be drawn where getting inspiration is a theme or a feeling, but when you actually take the riff of the song I think that should be regarded as plagiarism.”

JS: “The only people that have really been open about it [plagiarism] is someone like Noel Gallagher – he’s always been like ‘oh I like that’, ‘I love that’… And he got nailed for it for a song which was left off their second album, which was very similar to ‘Uptight’ by Stevie Wonder. It was originally included on ‘What’s The Story Morning Glory’ and had to be taken out…”
“…There are not a lot of musicians who do it. It’s incredibly common for musicians to be accused it [plagiarism].
“You look at any Amazon review of an album and someone will say – ‘I can’t believe that they get away with this track, it must be obvious to anyone with ears that this is a complete rip-off!’ Everyone thinks they hear echoes of another track… And a lot of the time musicians hear that.”

“A few years ago Joe Satriani – the rock guitarist, had sued Coldplay because he claimed that they had taken a little snippet of melody from one of his endless self-indulgent guitar noodles. You listen to it and really it was like ‘mate, you’re dreaming.’
“This is a man who like a lot of musicians has a very large ego and believes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He sees a band like Coldplay who get a certain amount of critical acclaim, although not everywhere, But Satriani obviously looked at that and thought – ‘I see my influence everywhere, they’re all ripping me off!’ It’s amore in his head that reality.”

“In regards to Led Zeppelin doing this – if hadn’t been Jimmy Page I might have been prepared to say – well yeah, it’s just a minor chord pattern. It’s not an uncommon pattern of chords – the descending pattern of chords, and even the fingerpicking – the sort of 1-2-3-4 is hardly uncommon in the folk tradition. The fact is, Jimmy Page has form – a lot of form, when it comes appropriating other people’s work. Now whether that would count in the court of law is highly debatable, no doubt.”

JB: “Well coincidences can take place and in the case of the Joe Satriani track I think that idea starting on a minor ninth chord with the melody and then over the C chord – that was the melodic fragment he was picking up on. My personal view is that it is not beyond the realm of coincidence that two composers separately could come up with what is a relatively simple harmonic and melodic idea over two phrases.
“The challenge with this kind of issue, and particularly the Randy California issue, is that everybody hears music subjectively.”
“When a listener hears a piece of music they’re listening to quite a lot of information going into their brain, not just the thing musicologists write about typically – melody, harmonic context, i.e. the underlying chords and that which could be notated, but they’re also hearing the production, they’re hearing the instrumentation.
“So for example, had I played you the Randy California track using a brass band arrangement, it would be technically the same composition and the same piece of intellectual property in terms of music publishing, but it would sound completely different because it would be played by a brass band.. So, the reason that a lot of people hear similarities can be influenced by something as simple as instrumentation, and because I’m sitting here with an acoustic guitar and have played both examples on the same acoustic guitar back to back, that rather enhances their similarity as composition in terms of listener perception.”

CF: “The Beatles in particular came up with very-very original songs for their time and had a very unique sound. While they might borrow ideas and get influence from rock and roll and other stuff that was around at that time, they definitely put their own stamp on it. I don’t think that you could regard what they did as plagiarising, but it was taking influence and producing original music.”

JB: “A lot of my academic research is investigating the psychology of the creative process – exactly how do people come up with melodies? There’s a lot of romantic mystery attached to it in the mainstream media and of course songwriters maybe have a bit of a vested interest in mythologizing the process in that way.”
“Every creator of music has heard previous music and is creating new material in that context. So when I interview songwriters they tell me that it happens all the time that they accidently, inadvertently or even deliberately compose fragments for their own song that they’ve taken from other songs… But normally that’s avoidance of plagiarism – a normal part of the creative process. You just go – oh that sounds a bit similar, I’ll tweak it until it doesn’t.”

AM: “The issue that we come across again and again is the dichotomy between an idea and the form of expression of an idea… And you see that in all forms of copyright works, it’s not just music.
“But at what point is what has been taken – the inspiration, as against down at a level where it’s the particular way in which that idea is expressed. It’s a real problem for the courts to grapple with any particular case and therefore it’s a real problem for artists and music companies when they’re looking at issues like this…”
“I think the answer ‘I wasn’t aware’ is probably not a defence… A court can find that you were copying and reproducing and that’s the test – were you as a matter of fact copying without intending to, maybe even without realising?
“The answer seems to be yes you can. You’ve got to have pretty compelling evidence to show that that particular track was around so much and you’d heard it so often that it was somewhere there in the back of your mind that you’d be regurgitating it without even realising…”

JS: “When you combine a musical pattern and also a lyric which quite often Led Zeppelin have done then that’s when you haven’t really got too much of an argument. Again it was something that Noel Gallagher has done several times – the song ‘Whatever’ goes ‘I’m free to do whatever I want’ and Neil Innes of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band said that he [Neil] basically stole that from ‘I’m free to be an idiot’. As far as I know Neil Innes now has a credit on that one, along with the other ones that Noel Gallagher has given credits away to. If Neil Gallagher was going to steal the melody, he might have gotten away with it, but to actually steal the first two words? Then you’re in trouble.”

CF: “Most times when you come up with a song that you actually want to borrow a part of then you approach their publisher and ask permission to do so. I’ve done that before in bands that I’ve been in – we did a cover of Mr Sandman which is obviously a very old classic song. We approached the publishers and they approached the writers and they gave us permission to use it.”
“…We basically did a cover of the entire song but did it in a very different way to the original. The original is all very happy-clappy and we were doing a darker version of it. So we sent them a recording and they wrote back and said – yeah, you’ve got permission to use it… And they would get a percentage of royalties from it.”

AM: “It’s an expensive thing to do as a claimant and it’s an expensive thing to defend as a defendant. And I hate to say it, being a lawyer, but it is one of the areas where typically the people who really succeed are the lawyers and therefore it lends itself to early resolution.”

JB: “It’s all in the ear of the listener isn’t it? It’s dependent on the way people receive it – to some people things will sound very similar, to other people not.”

Eurovision 2014 live blogging

eurovision-2014-logo[This is a live blog – hit ‘refresh’ in your browser at the end of each song throughout the evening and the most recent one will appear at the top. As in 2013, each song will be scored as we hear it. Geeky musicological commentary will be added wherever possible. As always I’m going to try to pick a winner.]

So, here are my predictions. I am typing this at 22:04 on the night (before voting begins), and will, as in previous years, leave my (inevitably wrong!) top 3 here for posterity, and afterwards will post the actual winners below these. If you’re reading this you can stop hitting refresh now. I got two of the top 3 right in 2012 and all my top 3 were in the top 5 last year, and got the winners right for both years. I’d like to see the UK do well of course but I can’t honestly say we’ve got the best song. For me, it’s between The Bearded Austrian Lady, Swedish Apple-Z Chordsmiths and The Dutch Cowboys, although the Danes’ Bieberisms are in with a chance too. I’m going to play safe and put the Swedes at the top. But #3 could be Austria or Denmark. What to do…? I’m going with Austria – the 007/beard combo swings it.

Predictions 2014:

  1. Sweden – Undo
  2. The Netherlands – Calm After The Storm
  3. Austria – Rise Like a Phoenix

———–[edit 23:28]———–

I got the top 3 spot on for the first time! Admittedly mine were in a different order. The actual order was this:

  1. Austria – Rise Like a Phoenix
  2. The Netherlands – Calm After The Storm
  3. Sweden – Undo

—————[ends]————-

26: United Kingdom – Children of the Universe (Molly)

The loop is ii IV | I V | in F# major and the title hook is very well used here. The fact that the melody is constantly descending in each chorus phrase means that, for me, it seems to keep running out of energy at the end of each line, and the singer then needs to belt out the high C# to lift it again. But this is better than many a UK effort and I’m pleased that we’re writing better material this year. Although if it wins I imagine the Swedes will be miffed (Molly wrote it with Anders Hansson).

64%

25: San Marino – Maybe (Forse) (Valentina Monetta) [Read more…]

Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain #crassh3c #songwriting

Screenshot 2014-03-29 15.01.33

Discussion of the originality spectrum – is ‘newness’ defined by non-plagiarism from the Domain?

Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University): Who Writes the Songs? Creative Practice and Intellectual Property in Popular Music’s Digital Production Chain
In music, two objects can be owned – the composition (sometimes including a lyric as a ‘literary work’), and the sound recording. The separation of song and recording is the basis on which the music industry distributes monies, but equitable IP distribution becomes more difficult when creative individuals’ contributions (of melody, lyric, arrangement, performance or production) overlap or are non-­‐linearly created. In the 1960s it became increasingly common for performers to write their own songs; from the 1980s, democratisation of recording technologies gave songwriters and performers the opportunity to self-­‐produce; and by the early 21st century most digital home studios had more production power than the world’s leading studios had enjoyed only 30 years earlier. 1 These changes in creative context mean that songwriters no longer need to notate their work as they did in the early 20th century; production, lyric, melodic, arrangement and performance elements can be created, edited and adapted at any stage of the creative process. Non-­‐linear creative practice in song production has implications for ownership and copyright that may challenge the historical privileging of melody & lyric in popular music’s legal hierarchy. 2 This paper will provide examples of creative practice, and discuss the legal, musicological and ethical questions that 21st century song production presents for the music industry and for future music creators.

[Read more…]