Thicke as Thieves

One day, Yoko Ono was sitting at the piano playing Beethoven.  John Lennon was hanging around, overheard the piece and asked what it was.  “Moonlight Sonata,” she says.  Curious, John Lennon asked her to play the chords in the reverse order.  That day, the Abbey Road song “Because” took form.

Artists don’t steal, they borrow permanently.  Like a bunch of Homer Simpsons of creativity, they take tools from their unsuspecting Ned-Flanders-like neighbors and keep them in their garage, using them with no intention of returning them. Yet no one seems to have a problem with this because art, in this case music, is a constantly evolving form that builds upon what came before it.  If a musician were to neglect the influences of the past, they would find themselves directionless in a creative void.  An artist takes their educational background, combines it with their unique interests and talents, and eventually synthesizes something newer than, but not totally unrelated to what preceded them.

But like all things, music gets complicated when there is money involved.  In this day and age, songs can be considered more of a consumable commodity than an artistic contribution to society.  People want to be paid for their work, and that’s understandable.  But how do you put a price on something that borrows from so many other works?  Where is the distinction between one piece of music and the other if they are so completely interbred and related?  We see this problem making headlines lately with the quite-ironically-named song “Blurred Lines.”

Before this whole Robin Thicke and Marvin Gaye spat, there were many other times we’ve seen artists go to court over creative theft.  A few years back, Coldplay and guitarist Joe Satriani had to come to a settlement over the similarity of their songs. More recently, Led Zepellin (who has been notorious for “borrowing” ideas in the past) duked it out with the band Spirit over the intro to “Stairway to Heaven.”

Whether it be coincidental or deliberate, we are not strangers to the overlap that modern songs have with each other.   If you still are not convinced, I encourage you to check out this comedic take on the “four chord song”: Or just browse through this website.

If this is another case of coincidence, it leaves me curious as to how such a coincidence could occur.  Granted, most Western music follows the same scales and chord structures, but they are not so constrictive as to already let us run out of options creatively. So why do we choose the same ones over and over again?  Is there something inherent within these reused chords, melodies, and rhythms that resonate with us as a collective whole?  In many cases, I’d assume the artists in question have not heard of each other’s works, so what possessed them to create something so similar?

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In a book called "The World in Six Songs," neuroscientist Daniel Levitin spends part of a chapter describing music as an emotional experience of tension and resolve.  Tension builds as we are presented with the unfamiliar, and resolve occurs as we are delivered back home, whether it be a return to a repeating chorus or a completion of fully realized theme.  This suggests that we prefer some sense of predictability to our music.  We are not neophobic, disliking the strange and unfamiliar, but we do like the comfort of knowing what to expect.

In the case of the earlier mentioned “four chord song,” if you heard three out of the four chords in the progression, you don’t even have to be a musician to know what the next chord will “feel” like.  It is the perfect resolve to the tension built by the prior three chords, and that’s why we see the same pattern popping up in so many songs.

One might argue that songs that sound the same evoke the same cycles of tension and resolve, and that they have similar arousing and calming effects on the emotions of the listener.  Fortunately for the curious neuroscientist, we have the means at our disposal of understanding these emotions. If a song presents itself with a new verse in a minor key, we can look at eyebrow muscle activity and the electrodermal response in the palms of the hand to determine if the music is exciting the listener in a negative way.  As the song progresses to its resolve, we can see heart rate lower and muscle activity in the cheek and lower eye increase, indicating a positive reaction.

Back to the issue at hand:  can neuroscience tell if “Blurred Lines” has copied “Got to Give it Up”?  Definitely not, but it can weigh in on whether they both evoke the same emotional response.  If we were to hook a participant up to our equipment, we might find they produce similar results for both songs.  Many people have suggested the "feel" of the songs is the same, that being the rhythmic groove of the drum beat and bass line.  With biometrics, we can get a clearer idea what that "feeling" looks like.

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If you are looking for some interesting further reading on the neuroscience of music, I highly recommend of the works of Daniel Levitin (“The World in Six Songs” and "This Is Your Brain on Music") or Oliver Saks’ "Musicophillia."