Earworms (interview on BBC Radio 4)

I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, talking with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis about her book ‘On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind’ (Amazon link).

BBC Listen Again link.


It was an interesting discussion, and I thoroughly recommend the book for those who are interested in the psychology of music. Elizabeth’s own lab experiments are fascinating, particularly her rather mischievous (but successful!) attempt to ‘improve’ the music of Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. [Read more…]

Top 10 songs of 2013 – analysis

Daft Punk, getting lucky with a great chord loop – Bm, D, F#m and E.

In my recent research I’ve become increasingly interested in the way mainstream songs behave like a Darwinist ecosystem (this is the book chapter where I set out these ideas in more detail). The theory goes that successful characteristics of songs self-propagate because hits influence songwriters to do more of the same – although this may eventually lead some songwriters to challenge what become mainstream norms. So it can be interesting to analyse the most successful ‘organisms’ in the environment to see which musical, structural and lyric characteristics are evident.

Early in 2013 I looked back at the top 10 airplayed songs of 2012 (see Take Me Down Like I’m a Four-chord Loop) and found a number of musically similar characteristics, notably a prevalence of four-chord loops and surprising lack of variation of tempo – half of the songs had a tempo of 128 beats per minute.

[Read more…]

Will You Still Love [This Song] Tomorrow?

Last week I posted a research survey on this site to investigate the way listeners infer meaning from song arrangements. Thanks to all of the Facebook, blog and Twitter contacts who responded. Some of the respondents have asked me to publish the results, so here they are. The text below is part of a forthcoming research publication which should be available sometime in 2014.

Carole King in the studio


Song, Performance and Track – a listening experiment

Joe Bennett, 26 Sept 2013

It is self-evident, or perhaps a tautology, that an audio recording of a song carries cultural meaning for the listener, but to what extent does the listener infer meaning (from the track) that was not created by the songwriter? To borrow from Allan Moore’s terminology, to what extent is the track one of the ‘means by which songs can mean’[1]? To provide an objective/measurable example of the way ‘performance’ can create listener inferences I devised the following simple listening experiment, conducted using an online poll.[2] Participants were asked to select randomly one of two unidentified recordings ‘Song A’ and ‘Song B’ and listen to only one of them. ‘Song A’ was Carole King’s 1970 recording of the Goffin/King composition Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? ‘Song B’ was the Shirelles’ recording of the same song from 1960. Importantly, both recordings share the same melody and lyric as each other, with near-identical harmony, but are performed in different styles (‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘1960s girl band’ respectively) and at different tempi. Listeners were asked to speculate about inferred/imagined events – that is, to provide information about the characters and story that is not provided in the lyric.

[Read more…]

AABA form lecture – Distance Learning Songwriters 2013

Just An EchoThis is a post for my Masters degree songwriting students, containing all the slides (with lyrics and YouTube clips) for today’s lecture session at the Songwriter’s centre in Corsham.

Click here for the presentation

Here’s a related post discussing the Adorno critique.

IASPM day 2: Authorship and originality

IASPM outdoors[this session included my own paper which I will post separately with slides]

Authorship and originality. Chair – Anahid Kassabian

Authorship in the age of Digital Reproduction. Anne Danielsen (University of Oslo, Norway)
In the field of music, authorship traditionally resides in the musical work. In practice, this notion relies on the possibility of separating the performative aspects of music from the pre-composed. Authorship has thus been linked to the ‘frozen’ aspects of the musical process, to the structure that is left behind when the performance is over, either in the form of a notated score or a memorable melody. With the advent of recording techniques, the importance of the performance-related aspects came to the surface since in a recording also what were traditionally regarded as expressive means were fixed and thus possible to repeat. Previous to digital music production it was not possible to extract such performance-related aspects from the totality of the recorded sound. In the age of digital music production, however, this is different. In this paper I will discuss some examples of musical practice where the question of authorship is complicated, either because the creative contribution made by a specific author has not been acknowledged as part of the protected work, or because there are difficulties related to the very act of identifying wherein the authorship lies.

[Read more…]

Two Worlds Collide – Originality and Plagiarism in Songwriting (Joe Bennett)

Joe at IASPMHere’s my abstract for this morning’s presentation. All the slides will be posted here soon, so for now here’s a link to a book chapter that sets today’s paper in context of the my research into the creative processes used by songwriters.

Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University, UK)

For a song to attract copyright it must be original. Songwriters therefore need to avoid plagiarism whilst working within the established constraints of song form. Any song that is too similar to another will breach its copyright; one that deviates too far from established norms may not survive the marketplace. Copyright law protects songwriters from accidental or flagrant plagiarism, but it can only protect musical elements that can be codified. Demers (2006) argues that this has led to a privileging of melody, lyric and harmony, offering these elements more protection than auditory artefacts such as timbre, production or arrangement. Industrially, ‘song’ and ‘track’ are economically separated but in creative practice – and in the ear of the listener – the distinction is not so easy to make. This paper will explore the difference between song originality as enshrined in case law and will contrast these with examples of homage/copying that have not been shown to infringe copyright. Drawing on the presenter’s own experience as an expert witness musicologist in copyright disputes, it will discuss the moral and legal ambiguity of the dividing line between ‘song’ and ‘track’ and what this means for songwriting’s creative development in the future. 

IASPM 2013 keynote: Prof Simon Frith

To anyone who is involved in the academic discussion of popular music, Professor Simon Frith is perhaps one of our megastars. I was delighted to hear that he was the keynote speaker for this conference, as he is one of the driving forces behind IASPM itself and our journal – Popular Music. That this is his final conference (he intends to retire within the year) made his speech all the more poignant.


[with apologies to Simon for any inelegance or misrepresentation in the summative text below – I found the keynote extremely engaging, and have tried to balance my own interest in his points with the practical necessity of live blogging!].

Simon opened his keynote with a comment about his preference for the avoidance of nostalgia – and noted that Bruce Springsteen will be performing in Gijòn this week! He talked briefly about his influential book Performing Rites, written in the 1990s, and then discussed where popular music scholarship might be going today. His interest has always been partly located in the arguments of what constitutes ‘value’ in popular music, and notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ popular music. As an academic he takes what is still a very brave approach – of using academic tools to analyse highly contextual social considerations of aesthetic value in music. [Read more…]