“That song sounds familiar” – why is there so much copying in music?
When I put a song together there often comes a point where I think, “Wait a minute, haven’t I heard this tune before?”
For any musician with integrity this is a tough moment. No one wants to be accused of ripping off someone else’s work, and yet music fans will go gaga for a song that reminds them of something else they once loved. It’s a fine line between aping someone else’s work and yet delivering something that is both original and comfortably familiar.
This phenomenon is not unique among the arts but there is something special about music. Let’s explore further.
Musicians routinely get away with mimicry. Painters who copy are strongly criticised for their imitation, or even accused of the crime of forgery. Novelists who plagiarise are shunned and pilloried for bringing disgrace upon their profession.
The world of music has not been without its scandals. The Sam Smith smash hit ‘Stay with Me’ bears such a strong resemblance to the 1980’s Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers smash hit ‘Won’t Back Down’ that he was very publicly called upon to explain himself. And yet, with a gentlemen’s agreement (and some royalty credits), Sam and his pleasant little song have gone on to win a Grammy. Lance Armstrong must be feeling very sorry for himself.
Even the loftiest legends of the music world have had their controversies. Bob Dylan quite clearly built his career by pinching lyrics from earlier artists, and rock gods Led Zeppelin have been called out on the similarity of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ to a tune sung by a band that they toured with in the 1960s.
Most of these accusations have substance. Yet, after a little bit of legal jockeying and some minor bad publicity, they all seem to wriggle free with their reputations untarnished.
So why should musicians be treated more leniently than visual artists or writers?
Perhaps it’s just math. Given the fact that the chromatic scale has only 12 notes, and a few basic rhythms, there is a natural limit to the number of ways you can cut the cake.
Lyrics offer more opportunity for variation, and yet songwriters seem naturally drawn to a familiar bag of words. Love, baby, girl, boy, night and day crop up again and again in popular music.
It seems that novelty is not what your average music lover is after. Consider the chorus – it’s all about repetition. Most people like music in a limited range of flavours and will proudly tell you which genre they are (and are not) in to.
And then there are the musicians. Unlike the solitude-seeking painter or writer, locked in their atelier, musicians are much more social creatures. They love to share and collaborate. Early blues artists notoriously borrowed each-others riffs and lyrics without giving it a second thought. Popular musicians do much the same today with remixes, sampling and guest appearances on each others songs (keeping copyright lawyers in business).
So that’s all great, yet I still get a bit nervous when I realise my own newly created song contains a riff or lyrics that reminds me vaguely of a tune that I have heard before. Once the similarity dawns on me, I find myself trying to modify it to make it sound much less like the original – often diluting the character of my song.
Luckily, at this stage of my nascent music career I only get a few thousand hits at most for my songs, so I doubt I’ll be appearing on the radar of any major record labels legal team any time soon. If I start getting snotty letters from those pesky copyright lawyers I’ll take that as a sign that I’ve finally made it big.
Bring it on!