Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Originality — Does it have any role in art?

Compare these two songs (you may have to wait a few seconds until they load):

Someone posted the first of the above videos in a forum thread on, a site where musicians give each other feedback on their musical creations, and the title of the thread was "Lazy Songwriting."

The artist in the first video, MPHO ("pron. MM'POH") sings a song over the instrumental tracks from Martha and the Muffins 1980 hit, Echo Beach (the second video above). MPHO uses different lyrics and a different melody, and there are a few other differences, but it would appear that a substantial portion of MPHO's song uses the actual instrumental tracks from Echo Beach, or instrumental tracks that are so close to the original as to be indistinguishable from it.

The issue is this: Is this lack of originality in "Box N Locks" (the title of the MPHO song) problematic, perhaps to the point of dismissing MPHO as a plagiarist, or do we applaud the creativity of MPHO in taking tracks from an existing song and coming up with a new treatment?

(Let us assume, by the way, that MPHO has acknowledged the debt her song has to Echo Beach, and that the owners of Echo Beach are receiving the royalties due them from MPHO's treatment of their instrumental tracks. I do not know if this is actually the case or not, but I am more interested in the ethical issues here than I am in the legal ones.)

Now, before we get too caught up in questioning the ethics of "Box N Locks," consider the following:

(Incidentally, the above video is itself based on a pretty famous YouTube video called "4 chords, 36 songs," so the idea for this video on unoriginality is itself unoriginal.)

… In case you were not willing to listen all the way to the end of the previous video, the gist is that it plays portions of 65 pop songs all based on the same progression of four chords: I-V-vi-IV (in the key of C, this would be C-G-Am-F, repeated frequently). The list is hardly exhaustive; there are many more songs that could be added to that list.

There are numerous other oft-used chord progressions in songs too, like I-vi-IV-V (e.g., C Am F G), and the ever-popular I-IV-V (e.g., C F G), or I-IV-V-IV (C F G F), or I-V-IV (C G F), I-iii-IV C Em F), etc.

When I was a jazz guitar student, my teacher gave me a chord progression to learn for improvisation practice called "Rhythm Changes." After a few weeks, it occurred to me to ask about the origin of the name, and he told me that the chord progression came from the 1930 Gershwin song,  I Got Rhythm, but it has been used in hundreds other songs as well. The Wikipedia article on this progression calls it "ubiquitous" in jazz music, and adds that by writing a new melody over its chord changes, thereby creating a composition of a type known as a contrafact, a jazz musician could claim copyright to the new melody rather than acknowledge Gershwin's inspiration and pay royalties to his estate.  [Read more about it here if you like.]

Tunes and lyrics can be copyrighted, but chord progressions can't.  If a songwriter's objective is to write a "hit," it would be virtually impossible to write a chord progression in which large portions have not previously been used in various other songs, and copyright law reflects this. Thus, when it comes to chord progressions, originality does not play a very large role in many musical genres (pop, blues, folk, jazz).

There are, of course, exceptions; I don't think the chord progression in John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" had been used before the 1960 release of the album of the same name, but, many have used this chord progression for other songs since then, to the extent that jazz musicians refer to it as Coltrane changes. If you aspire to be a jazz musician, you pretty much have to learn to play and improvise over this in every key (and at a break-neck tempo!).

The title of this post — "Originality - Does it have any role in art?" — is mostly tongue-in-cheek; I suspect that most would consider it to play an essential role in art, but, as I have suggested elsewhere (see my next blog entry), its importance may be overrated. 

If I were a pop musician and, in the course of writing a song, discovered that my chord progression was one that someone else had used, it would seem foolish (or at least impractical) to conclude that I ought not to continue writing that song because of its lack of originality. I suspect that the odds would be extremely slim that most songwriters could ever come up with a truly original chord progression while remaining rooted in the functional tonality used by virtually all pop songs.

If you concern yourself too much with the challenge of creating a truly-original chord progression in pop music, you might find it very difficult to finish a song. On the other hand, if everything you wrote sounded very much like the music of others, you might have a hard time carving out a niche for yourself that distinguished you from others. But would this would stand in the way of establishing a successful career in pop music? I doubt it.

I would argue that originality has an essential role in art, but it can be an impediment to the creative flow for an artist to become overly concerned with it (as I have written in another blog), and so perhaps the most practical approach would be to focus primarily on writing the music you want to hear, but with at least some awareness of the need to make that music personal, thereby distinguishing it from the music of others.

And if by "original" we mean "completely unlike anything that has been composed before," we would be hard-pressed to come up with truly original music, and if we did, it seems likely that it would be so strange that few could relate to it. Incidentally, I would never suggest that you "shouldn't" write original/unusual music for this reason; write what you would like to hear, and if it is highly bizarre, so be it!

I listened to a YouTube video several months ago of a Beatles rehearsal of "I'm So Tired," a John Lennon song, from the "white" (i.e., untitled, except for the group name) album, where Paul was singing the tune in a goofy kind of way, but what struck me most about it was that the chord progression for the first line of the song was I-vi-IV-V — a ubiquitous progression in 1950's "Doo-Wop" music — whereas in the album version (sung by John), the second chord is VII (yup, a major chord built on the leading tone). A small thing, perhaps, but the use of the VII chord is highly-unconventional, and gives the song a significantly-different feel:

One of the things that makes Beatles songs so musically compelling for me is the occasional use of unexpected chords, while not going so far beyond expected conventions as to alienate listeners.

Here is the album version, where the second chord in verses is (usually) a major VII:

DIGRESSION ALERT!  Incidentally, "Sexy Sadie," another Lennon song from the "white" album, also starts with a I (G) and moves to major VII (F#) for the second chord, but the third chord is iii (thus it's G - F# - Bm), which makes the second chord a V of iii:
G - F# - Bm - C - D     Sexy Sadie, what have you done? You've made a fool of everyone,
G - F# - C -D               You've made a fool of everyone,
G - F# - F -D                Sexy Sadie, what have you done? 
There is nothing particularly unusual about a secondary dominant (V of iii), but in the second line above, the VII (F#) chord is not a secondary dominant: G - F# - C -D; following a major VII with a IV is quite unusual (extremely so in classical music!). 
Continuing, the third line above begins with: G - F# - F - D, which is another unusual progression (particularly the first three chords of I - VII - bVII - V). 
The chord progression in each line is similar, but varied slightly and unexpectely each time, and it avoids the ubiquitous Doo-Wop progression that could have been used.

To conclude, borrowing is integral to many musical traditions, perhaps all of them. One manifestation is the re-use of chord progressions as discussed above, or in a standard 12-bar blues progression and its many variants. In jazz, playing standards — albeit in your own, somewhat original way — is a common practice. This is also true of folk music.

And the practice is not confined to borrowing chord progressions; other examples include:

  • Melodies; despite the fact that they can be copyrighted, melodic phrases, fragments, and ornaments are frequently re-used.  
  • I understand that in rap and hip-hop music it is common to borrow (i.e., appropriate) "beats" and entire sampled sections of other songs. 
  • Along similar lines, a very popular YouTube video is on the "Amen Break," a drum fill used in countless R and B and rock songs. 
  • Classical music uses a relatively small selection of cadence formulas, as well as numerous other commonly-used progressions, accompaniment patterns, devices (such as sequences), and textures.

Of course originality matters — I become annoyed when I hear something that sounds like a blatant rip-off of something else —but a little bit can go a long way, and obsessing over it can be a creativity-killer. So don't!  ;)

BONUS COVERAGE! Here are two more videos (thanks to MacJammer "Elevator Funk" for pointing out the relationship between these two songs):

→ De La Soul - "Me Myself And I" (1989)
→ Funkadelic - "(Not Just) Knee Deep" (1979)

Commentary from Wikipedia:

["Not Just) Knee Deep"] is considered a classic by many and has been heavily sampled by many artists. Hip hop group De La Soul sampled the intro to the song in their hit "Me, Myself, and I", which reached #34 on the Billboard Pop Charts and #1 on the R and B Charts.

Also LL Cool J ("Nitro"), Above The Law ("Never Missin A Beat"), Tone Loc ("Funky Cold Medina"), MC Hammer & Deion Sanders ("Straight to My Feet") and Snoop Dogg ("Who Am I (What's My Name)?"), G-Funk Intro and his unreleased track "Do U Remember". Geto Boys sampled the intro for "Homie Don't Play That". Dr. Dre also sampled the baseline beat for his song "Dre Day". The Black Eyed Peas also used the beat behind it to remix their hit single "Shut Up". X-Clan sampled the song in Funkin' Lesson. It was also interpolated in the song "Get Away" by Bobby Brown.


Olivia Budd said...

Originality is always, aways essential. But that doesn't mean you can't draw on other people's work! However, in your first examples up there, that guitar riff is so memorable that reusing it is just silly. Obviously, you can create a multitude of different melodies over the same four chords - that's the beauty of chords. But I think it's the part that sticks out - the moving line - that decides whether or not your composition is original, since that's usually what the listener's ear is drawn to and what most people will remember and hum to themselves later.

André McEvenue said...

When I first began to write my own music, I became almost overly conscious of the presence of my influences in the music I wrote. This became somewhat of an inhibitor for a while, and I was reluctant to pursue ideas because I could often trace their origin back to music that I had listened to. Eventually, as I explored through the history of musical development, I learned how much the artists that I loved had taken pages from the books of others. Suddenly, I was not so concerned with pursuing every musical idea, and writing songs came more naturally.

I believe that originality is important in art, but that all ideas stem from some other influence. And it is the combining of diverse influences that often creates innovation.

With regards to sampling, and "borrowing", I feel that often there is a lack of innovation in the composition, and the goal is to profit from the success of a previous idea without introducing any real change or originality. It is a very fine line, but sampling can also be used to integrate many different ideas in way that is completely new.

Sometimes, however, as in jazz, the highly unique style of the performer can be enough change to justify the work as sufficiently original. And because sampling does not introduce an original performance, the focus is often on the content that is superimposed over it, such as rap poetry.

I believe that there is a point in a composition when the scale is tipped, and the focus is more on the original material that is borrowed, and less on the merits and innovation of the new artist. At this point, the work is redundant.

It is my opinion that this tipping point will always be a subject of debate and controversy among connoisseurs of sampled and "borrowed" music.

Jesse M said...

Chords a like a painters colors.

Would you criticism a painter who used Red, Blue, Green and Black?


Chords are like a cooks ingredients.

Can only meal be made from potatoes, meat and veggies?

Robert Humber said...

Dr. Ross, I think the reason why you like The Beatles so much is similar to the reason I like Queens of the Stone Age so much. When you talked about that VII chord making a subtle but important difference in an otherwise very standard doo-wop chord progression, it reminded me of a QOTSA song called "Everybody Knows That You're Insane", in which the chord progression at the beginning is i, VII (major triad on the leading tone like you said), bVI, IV. Then the second phrase is i, major II (also a bit surprising), bVI. Queens of the Stone Age is categorized as stoner/blues rock, but I never feel like I'm listening to the blues when I'm listening to them because their chord progressions are always unique. It's their chords that really separate them from any old hard rock band.

There's an interesting video where the lead songwriter/singer/guitarist of QOTSA Josh Homme sits down with some dude and tells him some of his tricks for writing good guitar parts and playing unique solos. It's easy to see that Homme doesn't have a whole lot of theory knowledge and like The Beatles, he's just working out things that sound cool. But it's interesting to see how he heard little things from other artists' music and incorporated it into his own style. I especially like when he talks about the scale he invented for soloing. It's not unlike a blues scale but with some minor changes it becomes much quirkier and Lydian-sounding, very typical of Homme's solos. Here's the link, I'd suggest checking it out if you're into rock music.

I'm a firm believer that originality is a very important part of art but I feel that it isn't something that just comes from nowhere. Originality is collected from a bunch of outside influences that are arranged in a new way, and a lot of the best classical composers and artists otherwise found a way to collect these influences in a very interesting way, particularly Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok and Messiaen come to mind for me. So I guess the best way to be inventive is to listen to lots of music to build up these influences. So everybody start listening to stuff!