The Ongoing History of New Music, episode 906: Unfortunate sonic coincidences: The lawsuits.

Okay, let’s go over this one more time. There are just twelve notes in the Western scale. The ways they can be combined to form pleasing sounds are finite in number. It’s a very big number, but there are only so many of them.

If we look at chords, combinations of three or single notes played simultaneously, that number is smaller still. And there are only so many ways in which chords can be played in a sequence that makes any sense to the ear and to the soul.

For example, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of hit songs with the same four chords at their root: E, B, C#, and A, often played exactly in that order.

If I haven’t lost you in this music theory yet, all these songs are constructed using those chords: “With or Without You” from U2, Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” from Smashing Pumpkins and “Self-Esteem” from The Offspring. We can also add in “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, and John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

There’s even an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to what’s known as the “I-V-vi-IV progression.” It can be played in different keys. For example, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is in B-flat while “Self Esteem” is in C-major. The chords can be ordered differently, but the common DNA is there. This is just how music works in the west.

Now listen to me: Just because so many songs share the same notes and chords is not a sign that any of these artists lack in creativity. No one is breaking any rules. AND NO ONE IS RIPPING OFF ANYONE BECAUSE NO ONE CAN HAVE EXCLUSIVE OWNERSHIP OVER A CHORD PROGRESSION. Got that?

However, there is a subset of people–lawyers, mostly–who believe that they should be able to sue artists for plagiarism and copyright infringement if there’s any perceived similarity between two songs. “My client needs to be compensated for this theft!” Even the mere threat of a lawsuit and/or jury trial can be enough to scare up some settlement money.

This is insane. And the situation is getting worse and worse. I think it’s time we deconstructed what’s happening with these crazy lawsuits that threaten to cripple all of music.

Songs here on this show:

  • Dagamba, You Stole My Song
  • Beastie Boys, Sure Shot
  • The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
  • Jet, Are you Gonna Be My Girl?
  • Nine Inch Nails, 34 Ghosts IV
  • Art of Noise, Moments in Love

Here’s Eric Wilhite’s playlist for the episode.

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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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