Arts & Entertainment

Music’s Unoriginality Exposed

Tim English’s latest edition of Sounds like Teen Spirit: Stolen Melodies, Ripped-Off Riffs, and the Secret History of Rock & Roll examines the phenomenon of song plagiarism and the major role it plays in the music industry. English has studied music theory and history for over 30 years and argues that music plagiarism is more prevalent than you might think. Music sampling doesn’t count because the original composer is reimbursed.

The book contains a plethora of comparisons of well-known songs that sound like songs that were already recorded. Since English covers worldwide popular artists, it is appealing to both music aficionados and everyday music listeners. Each comparison is two pages max, making the book an easy read. Technical knowledge is not required and the book doesn’t have to be read chronologically.

Music borrowing allowed well-known artists to achieve their career breakthroughs. Sounds Like Teen Spirit exposes a glut of rock & roll’s stolen melodies and riffs. Rock & Roll’s most cherished band, The Beatles, took tons of old rhythm & blues songs and incorporated them into their catalog. For example, “Come Together” was ripped off from Chuck Berry’s song “You Can’t Catch Me.”

The 1970s Doors’ song “Hello, I Love You” has the same melody as the British superstar Kinks “All Day And All Of The Night.” Everyone’s favorite Bachman Turner Overdrive’s classic guitar riff in “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet” was taken from The Who’s legendary song “Baba O’Riley.” The list is endless. But don’t worry, some iconic rock legends have managed to stay 100% original. English tells the Steven Maggi radio show that British rock group The Who never faced a legal issue of stealing another artist’s work.

Modern music also faces the issue of music borrowing. Sam Smith’s pop hit “Stay With Me” was accused of being stolen from classic rock musician, Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” Smith claimed to the press that he never heard of the Petty song. Avril Lavigne’s 2007 hit “Girlfriend” was also accused of being ripped off from Rubinoos’ 1977 pop single “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” Robin Thicke’s party song “Blurred Lines” was written in the style of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.”

Mega pop alternative band Coldplay was sued over their 2009 song “Viva La Vida” for sounding just like rock guitarist Joe Satriani’s 2004 song “If I Could Fly.” Despite Coldplay’s explanation that they never heard the song, it doesn’t matter from a legal standpoint. According to this book, all that matters is whether the copyright infringement is noticeable or not.

It’s easy to prove music infringement when it’s words, but riffs and melodies are a different story. That’s a little tricky. English says, “First of all, you got to prove that the person stealing the song could have heard the song they are accused of ripping off. For that reason, many performers will have a policy where they don’t listen to any material from outside songwriters.”

The comparisons are not only entertaining and informative, but also raise the question: How can one prove if a song is plagiarized intentionally or accidental? This question is unanswerable because music plagiarism is very subjective. Some readers may agree that the guitar riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana sounds just like Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” but others may not hear a similarity at all.

This book not only exposes plagiarism, but reveals the relationship between artists and their influences and how this relationship may result in accidental plagiarism. It makes you wonder: is imitation praise and appreciation? Or is it stealing? English argues that a song can be considered stolen in three ways: lyrical similarities, stolen riff or bass line, and cadence or general production of a song.

REBEAT blog/magazine says, “The history of modern music is practically built on artists imitating and copying one another, tweaking the details here and there to create something new.”

Borrowing melodies and riffs are inevitable. Recorded music has been around for over a hundred years, so it’s no surprise that plagiarism inhabits the music industry. Sounds Like Teen Spirit is a lighthearted look at how often musicians “borrow” from the past, either unwittingly or intentionally. After reading this book, your mind will be filled with music trivia knowledge and you may hear your favorite song in a new way.