Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven

Led ZeppelinSo the Stairway to Heaven / Taurus controversy was back in the news yesterday, due to the fact that the dispute is to go to a jury in the US in May this year. I participated in a panel discussion about this a couple of years back for a Russian radio station.

In the next couple of days I’ll post proper transcriptions of the two with audio and some discussion points. For now, here’s an interview I did yesterday with BBC Radio 5 live, discussing the songs with presenters Sarah Brett and Ore Oduba.

Did Sam Smith copy ‘Earth Song’ in ‘Writing’s On The Wall’?

Sam SmithI 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.

Earth Song (top) vs Writing's On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people.

Earth Song (top) vs Writing’s On The Wall (bottom), normalised to Ab minor for comparison purposes. No two notes line up perfectly, and yet the similarity is apparent to many people (click image for a larger version).

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.

Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing's On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.

Earth Song (excerpt from verse 1 at [0:51] shares a four-note melodic phrase with Writing’s On The Wall (chorus 1, from [01:28]), albeit with different harmonic context on the half-bar.

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. 

Sam Smith and Tom Petty – coincidental similarity or accidental copying?

Tom Petty, one-fifth of the co-writing team behind Sam Smith’s ‘Stay With Me’.

This is a blog post about 5 bars of music. As reported in Rolling Stone and The Sun recently, the melodic similarity between Sam Smith’s 2014 song Stay With Me and Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down (1989) resulted in an amicable settlement between the writers and publishers sometime in 2014, resulting in Petty and Jeff Lynne, who originally wrote I Won’t Back Down, receiving a 12.5% share of the royalties. The PRS database in the UK confirms the share (members only access).

And subjectively, the songs are pretty similar, as bloggers had been pointing out since mid-2014.

But everyone was relaxed about the settlement, and Petty issued a  statement to this effect:

About the Sam Smith thing. Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam.  All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen.  Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by.  Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.  The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention.  And no more was to be said about it. How it got out to the press is beyond Sam or myself.  Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this.  A musical accident no more no less. In these times we live in this is hardly news. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career. Peace and love to all. (Petty, 2015)

Here’s the thing. Petty used the term ‘accident’, which one might interpret as meaning the copying of the melody was inadvertent. Sam Smith’s representatives claimed that the similarity was the result of a ‘coincidence’: [Read more…]

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…]

Forensic Musicology – interview in Danish broadsheet

Screenshot of newspaper article

Article from this week’s Weekendavisen. Click the image to download Danish version.

I was interviewed recently for the Danish broadsheet newspaper Weekendavisen, which ran a feature on musical plagiarism, referencing Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. The text below is a (partly Google-powered) translation from Danish. For any native Danish speakers reading this, the original will probably make more sense – download here: Weekendavisen article 24 October 2014.

Slørede grænser (Blurred Boundaries)

[translated from Danish. Written by Anders Boas. Reproduced in translation by kind permission of Weekendavisen.]

The same way that a house is made ​​of bricks, wood and nails, a piece of music is build of pitches, harmonies and rhythms. But the same way that very few people see each brick in a house, it is a minority that hear the individual notes when listening to the latest hit. [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…]

PopMAC day 3: Applying melodic analysis to infer the extent of plagiarism #popmac

Applying melodic analysis to infer the extent of plagiarism in popular song authorship disputes. Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University

This is my own paper. I’ll publish the slides online  soon, but for now I’ve posted the references, as a few people requested today. I hope to publish something more substantial on this work in 2014. For context, here are a couple of links to my previous research into songwriting creativity;

  • Bennett, Joe. “Constraint, Collaboration and Creativity in Popular Songwriting Teams.” In The Act of Musical Composition: Studies in the Creative Process, edited by David Collins, 139–169. SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music. Ashgate, 2012.  Download pdf
  • Bennett, Joe. “Collaborative Songwriting – the Ontology of Negotiated Creativity in Popular Music Studio Practice.” In Journal of the Art of Record Production 2010. Leeds, UK: Art of Record Production, 2011. Download pdf (English) • Download pdf (Spanish)

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REFERENCES

Bently, Lionel. “Authorship Of Popular Music in UK Copyright Law.” Information, Communication & Society 12, no. 2 (March 2009): 179–204.

Boden, Margaret. The Creative Mind : Myths and Mechanisms. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004.

Cason, R. J. S., and D. Müllensiefen. “Singing from the Same Sheet: Computational Melodic Similarity Measurement and Copyright Law.” International Review of Law, Computers & Technology 26, no. 1 (2012): 25–36.

Cronin, Charles. “Music Copyright Infringement Resource – Sponsored By USC Gould School of Law,” 2002. http://mcir.usc.edu/cases/

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Society, Culture, and Person: a Systems View of Creativity.” In The Nature of Creativity : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, 325–339. CUP 1988.

Demers, Joanna. Steal This Music – How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity.  University of Georgia Press, 2006.

Melodic Similarity: Concepts, Procedures, and Applications. Computing in Musicology 11. Cambridge, Mass. : Stanford, CA: MIT Press ; CCARH, Stanford University, 1998.

Lund, J. “An Empirical Examination of the Lay Listener Test in Music Composition Copyright Infringement.” (2012). http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2030509.

Melodic Similarity: Concepts, Procedures, and Applications. Computing in Musicology 11. MIT Press, 1998.

Temperley, David. Music and Probability. MIT Press, 2007.