Have we already composed, performed, and recorded every combination of notes, tempo, and instruments? Are we living in a time where we will never hear a new combination of notes? Have we already imagined every possible melody?
In Western music systems, there are 12 intervals between two notes spaced an octave apart. Play or sing an E Flat note. Now play an E Flat one octave above the first note. You have jumped the full range of possible notes available in Western Music.
Scales are generally created from a smaller selection of these 12 notes. Within these scales, certain notes are generally played much more often than others. This means that many melodies derive from a small subset of the 12 available notes within an octave.
One would imagine that there’s not much room for originality. Let's take a look.
Is it possible that we've already written every possible melody?
Is it possible that we've already written every possible melody? The first known examples of written music date from roughly 5000 years ago. These days we have a more or less permanent way of storing musical compositions.
How To Be Original
What distinguishes different pieces of music is as much the timbre and rhythm of the music as the melody. Timbre refers to the general sound of the musical notes. The same melody played on two different instruments can sound different because of timbre. A modern musician might compose a melody using the same notes the Beatles used for a melody of their own but the similarities are not always obvious.
The music appears to be different thanks to the modern percussion, synths, and imported samples. The sound is further manipulated by adding compression, digital delay, and a whole host of other effects. That’s the beauty of music.
Despite the 12 note constraints, musical compositions number in their millions.
Debussy once said that music is the space between the notes
This got me thinking again about how musical constraints force composers to be creative. Emphasising silence, and letting simple melodies breath can result in the most beautiful music. Debussy once said that music is the space between the notes. Every composer has the same limited number of notes to use and the skill lies in their ability to produce original music. Originality comes from a combination of notes chosen, rhythm, note durations, and harmony. But the quality of the sound (timbre), the strength of the notes (loud/soft) and the expression placed on the notes are also factors.
Thomas Newman & Arvo Part
Thomas Newman has an incredible talent for generating emotion through his music. His minimalistic music is in contrast to the work of his contemporaries Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, and Alan Silvestri.
The other day I was listening to the ‘Meet Joe Black’ soundtrack by Newman. Something told me that I’d heard the music before. On listening to my other
Fratres, his 1977 composition and one of his most famous works, uses repetition of musical phrases over drones. This method is based on the Tintinnabuli style, which Part invented. Tintinnabuli dictates that certain musical voices use only notes from specific triads and are thus restricted in movement. The first couple of minutes of the track ‘Yes’ from Meet Joe Black 0:06 – 2:00 resemble Part’s ‘Fratres’ 1:19 – 2:00.
Did Newman copy Fratres? Hardly, but there are certain points to keep in mind. Both composers use the same instrumentation and write (mostly) minimalistic, atmospheric pieces. The chances of some similarities are quite high.
This brings us to the polemic issue of copyright infringement in music. I am not suggesting that Newman copied Part, far from it, but it is possible that the younger composer was influenced by (according to many people) the world’s greatest living composer.
Copyright Infringement Cases In Modern Music
One could argue that copyright laws are a type of artistic straightjacket imposed on musicians. It seems almost unfair that strict laws should govern the creation of art. A recent case involving Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Funk’ ended with The Gap Band receiving writing credits and royalties for the song. The hook of Uptown Funk apparently sounds much like the riff of ‘Oops up side your head‘. You decide!
A few years back Coldplay and Joe Satriani had a famous spat about the former's ‘Viva la Vida’, which appeared to copy the melody of Joe Satriani’s ‘If I could fly’. Satriani claimed that Coldplay copied his song without permission. The facts are that the tempo, rhythm, and chord structure are similar.
The Marvin Gaye estate recently took exception to Pharrel and Robin Thicke’s ‘blurred lines‘, claiming it was a direct rip off of ‘Got to give it up’. Here's the intro to that song.
Marvin Gaye’s family won big on this one.
The Gaye estate also found issue with another
In US copyright Law for an artist to sue for copyright infringement they must prove that the plagiarist had access to (meaning ‘they heard') the original music and that there’s a ‘striking similarity‘ between the copy and original. In all the cases above, except perhaps Satriani vs Coldplay, the artist that allegedly copied the original song most likely had ‘access' to the original. Whether they consciously copied the song is another issue.
Will there come a time when Musicians must reference their music against a database at every step of the creative process?
Is there a solution to this problem (if indeed it can be called a problem)? As artists release more and more music every year we will no doubt see an increase in lawsuits. There might come a time when Musicians must reference their music against a database at every step of the creative process.
Efficiency dictates checking a melody for similarities even before completing the piece of music. Apps like Midomi, Shazam and Soundhound analyse melodies and compare them to released material. These apps could become an integral part of a musician's toolkit.
Musical tastes change and this allows for creativity and originality. Yet music will always have to follow certain rules if it is not to offend the listener’s ears. The laws of nature govern how we perceive sound. This makes it harder to be original in the overcrowded modern world.
But musicians continue releasing music in ever-increasing numbers, and the art lives on.
Andrea Malone says
It’s definitely getting harder. Music is finite by definition for sure.
That’s a good summary.
No, i’m sorry certain sounds belong to certain composers and that sound is so unique to Arvo Part’s piece from the 70’s that Thomas Newman absolutely borrowed it in the 90’s, assuming rightly that no one was ever going to notice. Two different worlds, two completely different audiences. Plus, I’m sure Newman thought, he’s not even American what’s he gonna do, sue me? Then came the internet and our audience became the world and everything became easily accessible. You cannot tell me that Newman would commit such plagiarism today, and if he would so even by accident he would do what he should have done back then, trash it and start over.
David Macnab says
You don’t need the internet to recognise a sound as familiar as Pärt’s. A friend showed me “Meet Joe Black” the other day, and I immediately thought “Wow! How interesting to use Pärt’s music in this movie.” Then I waited for the credits, and saw no mention of Fratres. Then I looked up the movie, and saw only credits and plaudits for Newman. Really!? The “inspiration” is surely obvious, and it would be to Newman’s credit to acknowledge it.
I’m here after seeing a clip of Meet Joe Black and searching to find Part’s name on the soundtrack. I couldn’t see it, then found this page.
Come on……this is Part! If it looks like a dog, barks like a dog and licks it’s own …….it’s a dog.
Dear Keith, Thanks for the interesting article! I found it by doing a seach “Thomas newman plagiarism arvo part”, and up came your article. You are right to point out the similarities between the opening part of Newman’s score and Arvo Part’s “Fratres”. I, too, was surprised there was no mention of Part in the credits! My memory for where I’d heard that music didn’t work immediately, because at first I thought it was some Shostakovich. Then I realized it was Part. I think you include this particular example rightly, to be questioned as to plagiarism or imitation, whether conscious or unconscious. But listening to the two section that you conveniently provided of the Newman and then the Part, I feel that it is a direct quote with just a few thing changed. It’s in the same darn key! Has a pedal tone, the same use of chords, in almost the same order, and almost the same instrumentation! I do allow, again, that there is a slight possibility that this copying could be unconscious. But most professional musicians as skilled and education as T. Newman would likely remember the source composer if they heard something they liked that well. It would be interesting to talk to Newman about. And Part! At the same time, what’s done is done and if Newman is thriving and Part not angry, no reason to stir it up. I myself plagiarized 100% directly in a music theory class in my teens! I took a two-part Austrian-sounding folksong I’d learned as a young child and passed it off as mine for an assignment to turn in a piece consisting of a melody with one harmony line. I received praise and did feel guilty both about using it and having it admired! Another thing about Part’s music in “Joe Black” is the lack of a return of similar music at the end of the film. That mystifies me! There are plenty of somber moments in the whole ending where that wonderful symmetry and shape would have been very welcome. I was waiting through the film to hear that logical and time-tested shape of A, B, A! But no….. One more thing… I don’t see how one can think that a composer will be sure that plagiarized music will pass unnoticed because the audience for the film would be completely different than the audience for 20th Century classical music! Classical musicians go to the cinema all the time! Yes, we are a small percentage of citizens of the world, that’s true! But we hear the soundtracks we hear very keenly! …All very interesting. ..