[Smt-talk] Music Plagiarism Cases

Bennighof, James James_Bennighof at baylor.edu
Mon Dec 21 09:44:56 PST 2009

Unfortunately, a stack of undone administrative work on my desk prevents me from spending much time contributing to this discussion, but, as I implied in my note about the Symposium article about the Bee Gees, there can be a lot of difference between something that might seem, if described to a lay person, very significant, and something that really is the same musical idea (even if the problem isn't the situation of licks common to styles).  For example, imagine one of Daniel's musicological guns, testifying on behalf of the prosecution, bowling the jury over with the information that 89% of the notes in the later melody are the same as those in same order-positions the earlier.  I bet everyone on this list can write two melodies (or take a well-known melody and write a new one) for which this would be true, but which would sound pretty much nothing like one another.  This may be obvious to everyone, but of course the interesting problem is figuring out how to explain to a jury what criteria really do determine significance (or under what circumstances the 89% match would be part of those criteria).

--Jim Bennighof
James Bennighof
Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and Policy
One Bear Place, #97014
Baylor University
Waco, TX  76798-7014
(254) 710-6500 (office)
(254) 710-3600 (fax)

From: Daniel Wolf <djwolf at snafu.de>
Reply-To: <djwolf at snafu.de>
Date: Sun, 20 Dec 2009 04:32:14 -0600
To: Benjamin Givan <bgivan at skidmore.edu>, <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Music Plagiarism Cases

After reading through a number of the astonishing case descriptions at
http://cip.law.ucla.edu/caselist.html , it becomes fairly clear that,
whether for contemporary popular genres or in historical repertoires -
like the Gallant style - with similar caches of commonly-used tropes,
turns, sequences, progressions, licks and riffs, music theory might do a
better job of clarifying distinctions between commonly-held,
style-defining musical materials and innovative uses of these.  It is a
difficult problem, and an old one (Handel, for example, was simultaneously
criticized for plagiarism and for his mastery of contemporary styles, the
latter of which could not have been accomplished without the assimilation
of elements of music used by colleagues).  The legal opinions collected
online show a judiciary with precious little expertise in music (albeit
informed, in many cases, by hired musicological guns shooting every which
way).   This is definitely a useful line of public research and neutral
commentary for a music theorist.

Daniel Wolf
composer, Frankfurt

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