© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The ‘Blurred Lines’ of Music Sampling Could Spill onto Orchestras

John Williams conducting at Tanglewood
Boston Symphony Orchestra

Since the recent court decision that Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song Got to Give It Up, I had been curious to hear them side by side.

I will not get into a debate of the merits, or lack thereof, of each side’s argument, other than to say that the “groove” in Blurred Lines is awfully similar.

The problem is that composers have always used the work of other composers as the foundation/inspiration for what they wrote. The difference is, when Stravinsky wrote his Pulcinella Suite, based on music by Pergolesi and other 18th-century composers, there weren’t millions of dollars at stake. In notes he wrote for a Chicago Symphony performance of Stravinsky’s work, Phillip Huscher wrote,

“What Stravinsky created was, in fact, something entirely his own. He left the eighteenth-century bass lines and melodies alone, but the inner harmonies, the rhythms, and the sonorities all bear Stravinsky’s stamp, in one measure after another. “The remarkable thing about Pulcinella,” Stravinsky later said, “is not how much, but how little has been added or changed.” His achievement, then, is all the more remarkable.”

Rossini’s music served as the foundation for Benjamin Britten’s Soirées Musicales and Matinées Musicales. As far as I know, he never heard from the Rossini estate. There are myriad other examples. More recently, Osvaldo Golijov was accused of plagiarism, or at least “excessive borrowing,” in writing his work Sidereus.

I certainly believe musicians, composers, inventors, writers, anyone who creates something, should reap the rewards and not have to worry about someone else walking of with their inventions or ideas. Mark Swed, the highly respected music critic and columnist for the LA Times, took the argument beyond the money by asking if Marvin Gaye himself would have had a problem with this. Swed goes on to take us back to the very foundation of Western music, arguing that there are certain basic aspects of music which are for all to use, things which cannot be claimed or copyrighted by anyone. He sums it up well when he writes…

Out of this lawsuit, which is essentially a spat by millionaires about money, the court has attempted to regulate the rules of musical composition.

You can read his thoughts here.

Over the years, I have asked performers if they quit listening to recorded performances of music they plan to perform themselves. Many have said yes, wanting to make certain the recording they make is their own interpretation. Franz Joseph Haydn famously said that his isolation while working for the Esterházy family at their remote estate, “forced me to be original.”

Maybe composers will be expected to turn in all of there electronic devices and find a remote village in Tibet in order to avoid lawsuits.