Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Popular Music Songwriting = Lyrics + Approximation of Melody. Everything Else Is Arrangement.

I find infringement / plagiarism lawsuits involving songs in the popular music format (verse-chorus-verse, et al.) to be fascinating -- and unnecessary. If I can relay what I've read more-or-less accurately without looking it up, the case involving "Blurred Lines" is currently in favor of the Marvin Gaye estate. Apparently, the jury found that the rhythm section, bass and percussion, of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' production of "Blurred Lines" had a very similar vibe as Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Musicians who have analyzed and compared both songs have found that the bass line, while having similar rhythms, are actually using different modes -- basically scales, without getting too much into the nitty-gritty of music theory.

The jury, it seems, has created a precedent in which genre conventions -- e.g., funky basslines and more cowbell -- can be grounds for copyright infringement. I am certainly glad that the birth of rock 'n roll, in the 1950s, wasn't so litigious. If you haven't heard enough '50s music, there were basically three ways to write a rock 'n roll song:  (1) 12 bar blues with a boogie woogie backbeat, (2) a waltzy doo-wop with a I vi IV V chord progression (e.g., C Am F G, or G Em C D, etc.), or (3) a properly composed pop song.  But really, early rock 'n roll was about the 12 bar blues and/or the doo-wop progression. My point is that almost every '50s song sound like a plethora of other '50s songs.

I think an overlooked problematic area in "Blurred Lines" was that, according to what I've read in the song's composition process, it was basically cobbled together in the studio. It seems like Thicke and Williams, and perhaps T.I. too, were jamming with keyboards and drum machines and computer loops and vocal riffing. They created the backbone structure of the song to have the same groove as similar songs in the ballpark of a genre -- funk / pop / or whatever. They then brought in session players for the rhythm section, if they didn't want to track it themselves, and the entire envisioned vibe came to life.

They might or might not have done this, but the writers of the song should have written the song itself on paper, and not just lyrics. Ideally, one of them -- or their assistant(s) -- should have taken the, I'm guessing, Pro Tools session and lyric ideas, and transcribed a lead sheet:  Tempo approximation at the start, chords on top, treble clef melody in any key with meter in the middle, and lyrics on the bottom layer -- all the way through the page.

That should, in my learned-by-trial-and-error, yet somewhat idealistic view of music, show whether or not a song infringes on another song. In fact, the song itself is really only the lyrics and an approximation of the melody. In the previous paragraph, I listed the basic elements of a lead sheet:


... and four (and a half) of the six are fluid parts of the song, and can be changed in process of arrangement, especially when an artist is actually performing a rendition, or cover, of another songwriter's song.

Tempo: Speed it up, slow it down; it really doesn't matter. The song will be the same, no matter what pace.

Chords: Every major chord/scale has a relative minor chord/scale, and vice versa. Every riff implies a strummed chord, and vice versa. A diminished chord is basically a dominant seventh chord without a root note, and the reverse can also be true, depending on the key. It is a basic skill for any musician to substitute chords, while maintaining the integrity of a song.

Speaking of tempo and chords, compare the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" with Devo's cover. It's the same song at heart, no matter the delivery.

Meter: It might feel a bit weird at first, but a backbeat rocker can easily be transformed into a jangly or romantic waltz, and vice versa.

Key: Any key can be transposed into another key. Next ...

Melody: Due to artistic choices or perhaps physical limitations, a cover song's melody can still be in the ballpark of the original intent and still be a cover. Compare the major key electric "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden with the minor key, darker, grittier acoustic cover by Zwan. Substituted chords also affect the melody.

Lyrics: A musician covering a song might change a word here or there (e.g., Frank Sinatra covering the Beatles' "Something" or Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"), if most of the words are the same, it's a cover. If extremely similar lyrics are not admitted as such, then it's plagiarism.

In my opinion, genre conventions shouldn't be grounds for intellectual property infringement. The only focus on these types of lawsuits should be in the areas of melody -- and I think I've given a large ballpark on what can be considered a cover, so that might be applied to similar melodies -- and lyrics. And even in regard to melodies, there are only so many combinations that are accessible to any given culture.

So I really don't know, do I?

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