I’ve been a bit puzzled by the copyright suit that ended the other week in the US. According to the news reports, pop-star Katy Perry’s 2013 hit ‘Dark Horse’ copied a 2008 song featuring Christian rapper Flame, ‘Joyful Noise’. After a four-year court battle, a jury agreed and Perry, her co-authors and her label were ordered to pay damages.
I hadn’t taken much interest in it because I find Perry’s music pleasant enough, but rather vapid – I don’t actively seek it out – and rap is one of the three kinds of music I can’t stand (the other two are Country and, of course, Western). The concern, though, is the precedent that this case sets, which has provoked something of a shit-storm in the music industry, because it runs to the heart of how songs are actually written and produced.
I can see the point. As far as I can tell the songs are actually very different – totally different melodies, different chord structure (Perry’s is G-flat, D-flat, B-flat minor, B-flat minor/A flat; Flame’s, as far as I can tell, is B-minor. Er – that’s it, I think) and radically different vocals. That’s the puzzling bit. Where’s the infringement? Apparently the argument came down to the similarities between an ostinato riff used throughout ‘Joyful Noise’ and in the chorus of ‘Dark Horse’.
The riffs were not actually the same, and both were based on a descending minor scale, as used in the adagio from Bach’s Violin Sonata in F-minor, BWV 1018. Or, for that matter, ‘Old Man River’.
The issue, apparently, is that a legal decision which, in effect, copyrights a basic building block of music – such as a minor scale – also sets a dangerous precedent. And that’s what has got the music industry so riled up. It’ll stifle creativity at the very least. So I guess it’ll be a matter of ‘watch this space’ – I gather Perry’s legal team are looking at an appeal.
The odd part is that there are many songs that are closer in a technical sense because they all use the same chord progression – specifically, I, V, vi, IV. Sometimes the song uses them in a different order – Toto’s ‘Africa’, for instance, is vi-IV-I-V – but those four chords are really, really common. Artists such as Ed Sheeran, Matchbox Twenty, Taylor Swift, Boston, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, Devin Townsend, Nine Inch Nails, Natalie Imbruglia, Beyonce, Clean Bandit, Pink, Aha, Demi Lovato, Bruno Mars, Steve Winwood and a host of others have all written songs around these progressions. All these songs are clearly original to their composers and very different.
Still, the fact that pop music, particularly, operates to such a relatively narrow array of chord progressions and harmonic combinations means that, inevitably, there must be coincidental similarities between some songs. The only way I can think of around that is to do something bizarre – writing a piece in 13, for instance (5/8 and 4/4 in alternative bars) or juxtaposing different keys. I think something musically interesting would likely follow, but the commercial prospects wouldn’t be high.
On which note, as it were, let’s end with the Axis of Awesome and their mashup of every four-chord song ever written:
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019