Fears of plagiarism are scaring the crap out of the music industry. This is bad for everyone–except lawyers.

We need some linguist to come up with a new musical term, one to describe the feeling overcomes us when we believe a song sounds too suspiciously much like another.

You know what I mean. You hear a new track and you’re filled with a sense of deja vu as your brain tries to correlate its musical database with what you’re hearing. When all the processing is complete, you might thing (a) “Hey! Someone is ripping off [insert name of artist here]” and then (b) “Someone’s gonna get sued!”

Given what we’ve had to work with when it comes to Western society, we’ve certainly been able to create a lot of music. For centuries, we’ve used a standard scale of pitches or notes called the chromatic scale: 12 notes in an octave then repeat.

All notes are related to each other mathematically. The connections between the notes are a set of ratios, or as music theory says, intervals of a semitone. Playing notes in certain combinations or patterns reveal things like chords, keys, melody, harmonies, and so on.

These 12 notes are the building blocks of our music, everything from the greatest Mozart opera to the dumbest punk song you’ve ever heard is constructed from the same basic stuff.

That might lead you to believe that the number of combinations of notes would be infinite–or at least a very, very, very big number.

Actually, I know that number, courtesy of a Frank Behrens who wrote about this in the Arts Times in 2004. A quick bit of factoring reveals that there are 479,001,600 possible combinations of those 12 notes–if you played them once each.

But if you accept that there are many ways to play a single note–whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and thirty-second notes–you end up with a much bigger number: something north of one quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations.

If you played a new combination of notes every second, it would take you 33,063,236,360 years–at least five times the age of the universe–to play all of them. Again, that’s just for non-repeating using the 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

But hang on. You can’t just stick a bunch of tones and semi-tones together and expect them to sound good. Music has to sound pleasing to the ear and soul to have any meaning.

So despite this exercise in large numbers, there are only so many combinations of notes that work from an artistic and aesthetic point of view. See the problem?

If there are only so many notes that can be put together in only so many pleasing ways, how long before we start to repeat ourselves? And if we narrow things down further to, say, pop and rock, the problems become more pronounced.

The ultimate results are these unfortunate sonic coincidences, that sense of deja vu of having heard something before.

When the verdict in the “Blurred Lines” trial was handed down–a jury say that the song felt too much like Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”–I predicted that this would create an avalanche of plagiarism accusations that would ultimately have the effect of stifling creativity.

Sadly, it turns out I was right.

From the New York Times:

“It’s not easy to be a songwriter in the pop world these days. Listeners rarely see your name. For anything but a giant hit, royalties from streaming are infinitesimal — and big tech companies seem to want to keep it that way.

“And then there’s the shadow of ‘Blurred Lines.’

“Four years after the copyright trial over that No. 1 song — in which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, its primary writers, were ordered to pay more than $5 million for copying Marvin Gaye’s disco-era hit ‘Got to Give It Up’ — the case still looms over the music industry and individual songwriters, who were left to wonder when homage bleeds into plagiarism.

“Intellectual property lawyers and music executives interviewed for this article said the case had fueled a rise in copyright claims. In September, Ed Sheeran will go to court to defend ‘Thinking Out Loud,’ a Grammy-winning song that has been accused of mimicking another Gaye classic, ‘Let’s Get It On.’ Two years ago, Mr. Sheeran settled another suit by giving up part of his ownership in the Top 10 hit ‘Photograph,’ which was accused of having similarities to ‘Amazing,’ a song by the British singer-songwriter Matt Cardle.

“The aftereffects of the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision — which was upheld on appeal last year — have been felt most acutely by rank-and-file songwriters, who work in obscurity even as their creations propel others to stardom. The ramifications for them have been inescapable, affecting royalty splits, legal and insurance costs, and even how songs are composed.”

This is a dangerous situation for artists everywhere. Keep reading.

Then there’s this guy who has a crazy issue with copyright claims.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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