Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Song Remains The Same

If you’re going to copy a song, best avoid one called “I Won’t Back Down”. If you’re over 40 and happened to hear the hit song “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, you probably had a sense of déjà vu, since the song’s chorus sounds a lot like Tom Petty’s 1989 smash, “I Won’t Back Down”. The video mash-up below shows just how similar these tunes are:

Long story short, Smith claimed this was a complete coincidence, but agreed that Petty and his songwriting partner Jeff Lynne (E.L.O.) should receive co-writing credits for “Stay With Me”. Petty stated that, “these things can happen” and believes it was a “musical accident, no more no less.” Case closed.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a songwriter has been accused of borrowing heavily from a previous song. In fact, this has happened to Tom Petty at least one other time before. Not all of these disputes end on “a happy note”. If you’re curious, there is an entire web site dedicated to pointing out similarities between songs.

But should we really be surprised? There are only so many chords, isn’t there a limit to how many ways they can be strung together? Moreover, our ears are turned on by certain chord progressions, further limiting the combinations an artist can chose from if he/she wants a lot of listeners to enjoy the tune.

In addition to the limited combination of chords that sound pleasing to our ears, some musical genres also suffer from coming up with original lyrical content. This phenomenon was illustrated by a recent demonstration of how modern country songs sound exactly the same. Not to single out country - other musical genres are also guilty of churning out songs in cookie-cutter fashion...and science has found an explanation for this.

First, let's consider how many possible songs can be written. This has actually been calculated and you math fans can check it out here. For the rest of us, the calculation shows that the number of possible 5 minute songs is 2 to the 211 million power, which is a gargantuan number way more than even the total number of hydrogen atoms in our universe. Applying additional filters, such as limiting the octave and the number of notes to those most commonly used, there are still 79 billion possible combinations. Watch Vsauce break it down:

With so many possible songs that could be written, why do chart toppers usually sound the same? For a song to resonate with a large number of people, it has to balance our competing desires for predictability and unpredictability. This was perhaps best articulated by the composer Arnold Schönberg, who held that music must meet “the demand for repetition of pleasant stimuli, and the opposing desire for variety, for change, for a new stimulus.”

Trying to address why simplicity sells, scientists have found that music becomes “increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills. Only a small number of styles in popular music manage to sustain a high level of instrumentational complexity over an extended period of time.”

Which style of music has had the longest legs in sustained complexity and popularity in musical history? Drum roll…folk rock.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan

Juslin PN (2013). From everyday emotions to aesthetic emotions: towards a unified theory of musical emotions. Physics of life reviews, 10 (3), 235-66 PMID: 23769678 Percino, G., Klimek, P., & Thurner, S. (2014).

Instrumentational Complexity of Music Genres and Why Simplicity Sells PLoS ONE, 9 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0115255

1 comment:

  1. i made up a new chord progression it called a 1-4-5