Thursday, August 05, 2021

Borrowing or Stealing? Hard to Tell Sometimes

10 Beatles Songs that ‘Rip Off’ Other Songs, David Bennett Piano

Stealing, borrowing, ripping off, honoring, paying tribute ... these things are closely related and hard to separate sometimes.

Nonetheless it’s interesting to have a musical expert point out these similarities that most of us would never catch ourselves, including visuals with the notes on the scale.

A list of a few of the tunes - but definitely watch the whole video, it’s quite interesting and very well done:

  • “Come Together” and “You Can’t Catch Me” (Chuck Berry)
  • “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I’m Talking About You” (Chuck Berry)
  • “Revolution” and “Do Unto Others” (Pee Wee Crayton)
  • “I Feel Fine” and “Watch Your Step” (Bobby Parker) — this one is especially interesting, because even Parker admits he borrowed his riff from “Manteca” by Dizzy Gillespie, and later several other bands used similar but not identical riffs

That last example is why I sometimes have trouble criticizing songwriters and musicians who borrow a little from here and steal a little from there during the creative process. 

Obviously, outright theft is a thing that happens, and we absolutely cannot reward that, and compensation may be due to the original creator. But how exactly do you draw the line between outright theft and homage in the form of borrowing?

I’m not sure I get how that would even work. Say a given riff is 12 notes; is it stealing if 11 of them are the same? 10? How about 9? 

Is there some Board of Music Evaluation that officiates here? 

What if all 12 notes are the same, but the next set of 12 notes immediately following uses some sharps or flats as a variation on the original 12? Or turns one or two of them into shorter or longer notes? Is that stealing?

What if the chord structure is different even though the notes are spaced similarly, or even identically? What about modes and keys?

Trying to create something new, original, and good is very, very hard:

  • Start with 12 notes in Western music, called the Diatonic scale, spaced across the 3-4 octaves (a piano spans 8) that comprises the vast majority of all popular music. 
  • Each major or minor key only uses 7 notes, repeating across the 3-4 octaves. 
  • There are half notes and quarter notes and shorter and longer ones, but in most popular music quarter notes and shorter are used in most of the melody and various instrumental parts. 
  • These patterns determine the tempo and feel and most importantly the space between the notes, which is where the texture resides. 
  • Finally, there are certain chord progressions that are pleasing to the ear and others that are not. 

All of these limit your options, and to have lawyers and courts step in later to evaluate all of this in some manner that is fair to all seems just a bit iffy to me.