Want to see a magic trick? Check this out. Every word in this article will be written with only 26 letters. In fact, every single book, magazine and newspaper you have ever read will be written with only these 26 letters. Amazing right?
How can it be possible that we can create a practically infinite number of new sentences with just a few dozen letters? Well if you took math in high school, that’s because within these 26 letters, there are practically an infinite number of ways that they can be mixed and matched together.
So is this also the case with music, that we will practically never run out of new songs just as we will never run out of new sentences? There is a common line of argument by fans of music (which are most of us!) that there are only so many ways a song can be written. In fact, whenever there is a lawsuit against a famous musician for alleged plagiarism, their fans almost always turn to this line of reasoning. So does it hold up?
Well, the reason that this seems to make sense at first is because even non-musicians generally know that most pop songs are just made up of a few “chords.” These chords tend to follow each other in different sequences, called chord “progressions,” like D-G-A, or G-D-A. What people don’t realize, though, is that music is about so much more than just the chords. To say that there can be no original songs because every song is made up of only a couple chords would be like saying there can be no original sentences because almost all words have either one, two, or three syllables. So what’s missing?
Well, a few important things that make up a song outside of chords might include the tempo, key, groove, and melody, just for example. And depending on how specific you want to be, you might only focus on a few of these, or even add in more details, like the tone of the guitar being used, and the bass frequency, etc. But we can leave that to the music nerds. But here’s the point: when you add in all these other factors, you can mix and match them, just like letters in the English alphabet, and get a practically infinite combination of new songs. One song might be a fast rocker in D-G-A using a 12-string guitar, and another might be a pop record using a hip-hop beat in G-A-D that starts with a slow saxophone riff and ends with a drum solo. There are as many different combinations of these factors, aka songs, as there are different combinations of words in this article.
The Ed Sheeran Case
So what’s this about Ed Sheeran? In 2014, he put out “Thinkin’ Out Loud,” which turned out to be one of the highest-selling pop hits of the year. However, the descendants of one of Marvin Gaye’s co-writers on “Let’s Get It On” filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Those on Sheeran’s side, including the singer himself, repeatedly claimed that the lawsuit, if successful, would stifle musical creativity. He was so incensed that he claimed he would retire from music altogether if he lost. You might know what the jury ended up deciding based on what the law deems copyright, but let’s listen to the songs ourselves and make our own common sense judgements about whether the song seems plagiarized.
When you listen to both songs, you’ll first notice they are in different keys, which are like different colored “tints” on a photograph – if both pictures are of an apple, we will still be able to see it is an apple. Listen to Sheeran at about, let’s say, 1:19 for a little while, and then listen to Gaye let’s say also at 1:19 for a little while. You might immediately notice that they are the same speed, or tempo. Listen now to just the drums, and you might notice that there is almost the exact same “groove” in both songs, an uneven back and forth that makes you want to dance. Finally, listen to the bass and the guitars, and you’ll hear the music itself follows the same chord progression. In fact, if you close your eyes and just ignore Sheeran and Gaye’s voices, you might hear that they sound almost like the exact same “karaoke” track (as put by musician Dan Kanter, at let’s say, once again, 1:19, where he adjusts only the key).
If we listen just to both voices, however, they are obviously singing totally different melodies and words. Everything from where they enter and exit, and where in the song they are singing or staying silent, is completely different. After taking that into account, it might be fair to say that the melody and lyrics are very different, but the groove, chords and tempo are almost identical. Whether in your common sense judgement that might mean there was plagiarism or not is your own call. Again, Dan Kanter describes it as “half of the musical pie” being almost identical, and that seems reasonable to me.
In three hours, the jury decided that according to copyright law, Sheeran did not take large portions of his song from Marvin Gaye. But that doesn’t mean that the two songs are not as a practical matter, very, if not dangerously, similar to each other with regards to artistic ethics of giving credit.
Just because most songs use a few chords doesn’t mean that there are only so many songs that can be written, and that there is no such thing as plagiarism. Instead, maybe we have to look case by case, and see how many of the major factors like groove and tempo, as well as chords, seem to be identical. And sometimes, we can’t know for sure the intention of an artist and therefore can’t know for sure whether something was an act of plagiarism, but we can make fair judgements about the strength of an accusation. In this case, we can fairly argue that the identical tempo, rhythm and chord progression makes the lawsuit reasonable, even if it doesn’t win.
But for now, Ed Sheeran and his fans can breathe a sigh of relief, and who knows, maybe they are right when they say this ruling will strengthen creative flexibility for musicians, which is a good thing for art. Unfortunately, for me, it means that Ed Sheeran will have to postpone his retirement for just a little longer.
Did Ed Sheeran Plagiarize Marvin Gaye?
(And Why “There Are Only So Many Chords” Is Not A Good Defense)