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. 

Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste

CD cover

Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On (1997) is the song used by Carl Wilson to frame an in-depth discussion of musical taste in his 2007 book ‘Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love’.

Today I’ve been at the University of Bristol with scholars from the Severn Pop Network. We were discussing Carl Wilson’s book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. It’s an interesting read, using CD’s work, biography and persona to drive a discussion of what we perceive as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music and why, and how this contrasts with demographic and literal popularity of a pop product. I personally find Wilson’s lack of musicological comment to be slightly annoying (he makes almost no reference at all to the musical content of the works, or the works of the other artists he uses for contrast – for example, Elliott Smith). Wilson’s own musical prejudices (as he very occasionally admits) are obvious in the book, and he never attempts to quantify his reasons for disliking Dion’s work. He does, however, get into a fascinating discussion of Dion’s Québécois cultural background and the way the French-Canadian music industry’s economic evolution in the last 20-30 years has contributed to its content. I found it to be a very entertaining book, and not terribly academic, apart from the allusions to Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital in chapter 8. I just get irritated when people talk about music without mentioning the music…


Here’s a playlist of some of the music cited (and implicitly cited) in the book.


Here’s a few relevant citations, and a video from Steve Almond providing his own take on the discussion of taste and fandom.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” In Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education, edited by Richard K. Brown, 71–84. London: Tavistock, 1973.
Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996.
Salganik, Matthew J., Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Duncan J. Watts. “Experimental Study of Inequality and Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market.” Science 311, no. 5762 (2006): 854–56.
Washburne, Christopher, and Maiken Derno, eds. Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge, 2004.





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.

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PopMAC day 1: The Matrix & Cultural Diagnostic Concepts in Analyzing Recordings of the Beatles… Craig Morrison #popmac

Single labelUsing the Matrix & Cultural Diagnostic Concepts in Analyzing Recordings of the Beatles & Others. Craig Morrison, Concordia University


Peter Van der Merwe defines the matrix as a unit of musical communication such as a beat, note, or chord. Matrices group together concretely (songs, styles) and conceptually (sonata form, key, note), and come with implications, like the major scale with its fixed intervals, implying a sequence of chords. A matrix can carry embedded meanings: The major mode is bright, the minor dark; slow tempos express repose, fast tempos animation.

Vargish and Mook, investigating a scientific theory, a painting movement, and a form of literature in the early 20th century, coined the term ‘cultural diagnostic’ for advanced intellectual activities that serve to reveal the values of the period, with value defined as an underlying but identifiable characteristic [that is] pervasive, almost ubiquitous. Values, not necessarily new, can become dominant themes or qualities. A popular music style can be a cultural diagnostic as it contains historically defining values.

I developed these concepts in my doctoral thesis Psychedelic Music in San Francisco. In analyzing melodies, harmonies, rhythm, and lyrics while teaching The Music of the Beatles, I realized that as the band evolved, they not only became masters of embedded meanings (typically tied to emotions), which were integrated intuitively, I believe, into the compositions and arrangements, but their repertoire was an excellent example of a cultural diagnostic that contained the values of the period expressed as musical devices. That their use of matrices seems more sophisticated and extensive than other bands, of any era, may explain why their music continues to resonate. This paper will be illustrated by many examples, especially Beatles songs.

Craig begins with a discussion of the way the Beatles’ more unusual musical decisions (e.g. 7 bar phrases in Yesterday) often provide embedded meaning, enhancing the lyric (giving the example of the lyric immediately after bar 7 ‘suddenly’). He then provides a list of scholars (Dominic Pedler and many others) who have cited the way lyrics and music are analytically inseparable in The Beatles’ music. [Read more…]

PopMAC day 1: Incredible Regularity & Fast Evolution in the Beatles’ Harmonic Progressions. Philippe Cathé, Sorbonne #popmac

RainPopMAC day 1: Incredible Regularity & Fast Evolution in the Beatles’ Harmonic Progressions. Philippe Cathé, Sorbonne.


Does pop music really display its complexity in timbre and texture rather than in melody, harmony or form, as the ‘call for papers’ reads? Is this really the case for the Beatles? This paper addresses the questions through harmonic analysis, focusing on harmonic vectors, a theory based on a novel type of classification of harmonic root progressions. I will deal with all the songs written and sung by the Beatles. I will show that their harmonic practice bears greater similarity with that of composers of the late Renaissance rather than with Classical music. The evolution of the Beatles, year after year, indicates that their music bears even closer similarities with the music of Gabriel Fauré. A slight change in the percentages, from the middle of their career, suggests that we reconsider the impact on their music by vaudeville, jazz, comic songs and western ballads, especially during the second half of the sixties. Further results indicate the extraordinarily regular evolution of the virtual pop-rock side of their style, and highlight the strong influence they excerted on all subsequent pop music. Finally, my paper will explore the harmonic logic underlying their creative evolution, and suggest that harmonic analysis of pop music needs to go beyond the usual frame of tonality. In conclusion, I will make a case for ‘harmonic vectors’ as a general tool, above and beyond the Beatles.

Philippe Cathé is a reader in musicology at Paris-Sorbonne University. He is both a music theorist focusing on harmonic music from the end of Renaissance until the present time and a musicologist, specialist of the composers Charles Koechlin and Claude Terrasse and, more generally, of French music from the end of the nineteenth to the first half of the twentieth century. He works on developing Nicolas Meeùs’ theory of harmonic vectors. Besides this, he saves a part of his time to analyse the importance of sound in films. He has recently co- directed a book, “Charles Koechlin, compositeur et humaniste”, and he has just completed a work entitled “500 Years of Harmonic Music”.

Philippe opens with a discussion of the oft-stated negative views of popular musicology – that it is unworthy of harjmonic analysis because of its simplicity. He shoots down this argument by a hypothetical critique of Lichtenstein, who was not criticised (at least, not by art history) for using primary colours. [Read more…]

PopMAC 2013 – introduction

UOLI’m here (with fellow Bath Spa popular music scholars Jim Dickinson and Richard Parfitt) at the PopMAC conference at the University of Liverpool – see http://www.popmac.org.uk/. Our opening ceremony, from hosts Kenneth Smith and Michael Spitzer, opens with the observation that this conference addresses the problem so often asked (of cultural studies) by popular musicology – “Yes, but what about the music?”. IASPM 2013 took the most inclusive possible approach to popular music study – psychologists, law scholars, cultural theorists, sociologists and musicologists. This week at PopMAC, it’s all about the analysis of the music. As Kenneth puts it –“what happens at PopMAC… happens.” Guest speakers are Anne Danielsen (University of Oslo – who presented at IASPM last week); Walter Everett (University of Michigan); Allan Moore (University of Surrey). So let’s see what, er, happens!

IASPM 2013 – Gijòn, Spain – with Abbey Road and some Japanese Prog

Joe at IASPMI’m here at the 2013 IASPM (International Society for the Study of Popular Music) biennial conference. I’m one of about 20 British popular musicologists and there are several hundred of us from all around the world. We’re at the magnificent Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura in Gijòn, Spain. I’ve attempted to blog the sessions – including the abstracts and a brief summary – here. I do so with apologies to the presenters for any unintentional misrepresentation.

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