My Musical Ear


At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I like to believe that I have a particularly well-attuned musical "ear" (14 years of music theory, 50+ years of piano, and 60+ years of music listening will do that), including the ability to hear commonalities between songs. These commonalities can take several forms, of course, ranging from "unintended influence" to "flat-out rip-off" (with several stages in between). I tend to catch these similarities more quickly than most people, and often when others don't pick up on them at all.

For example, when the Cars' song "Best Friend's Girl" came out in 1978, I immediately recognized -- and told everyone I could (lol) -- that the guitar riff used after each chorus was (sorry, Ric) a total rip-off of the guitar riff that George (or Paul) uses on "I Will" on the White Album. Not the kind of connection most people would make, but when you've listened to enough music over a decades-long period, and have an "ear," these things simply pop out at you.

And so we have a new song, released about a week ago by Mumford & Sons & Pharrell, called "Good People." I heard it for the first time on Thursday. It's a nice enough song, but the minute I heard it, I recognized that it sounded strangely similar to a song by Adele. Now, I'm not much of an Adele fan and know very little about her music, so I had to actually listen to several songs before finding the one I was looking for.

The song is called "Rolling in the Deep" and was one of her hits (which is the only reason I recognized it at all). Although the two songs do not seem particularly similar when first listened to back-to-back, the structure (and even parts of the melody) of "Good People" are close enough to Adele's song that it set off my "rip-off" bells.

Pharrell sings the main lines of the song (verses), with Mumford & Sons providing a response to each line. Were it not for these responses -- i.e., if Pharrell sang all four lines of each verse one after the other -- the similarity to Adele's song would be even more obvious. But by breaking up the verses with these choral "interruptions," the song gets away with using the structure and melody of Adele's song without overtly ripping it off.

Still, it was so close that I heard it immediately. And as I do when I find these, I wrote an email to the two radio stations to which I listen, pointing out the similarity to Adele's song. Usually, I get a "thank you" email and even an occasional quasi-validation from the program director.

However, in this case, they must have heard what I did because last night they played "Good People" and followed it up directly with "Rolling in the Deep," with the DJ making a quick comment about the similarity (which, for some reason, was even more obvious when heard on the radio back-to-back). And the station did it again early this afternoon. It is almost as if they are inviting Adele to consider suing for copyright infringement. (This is not my intention, though it is worth mentioning that Pharrell seems to have a penchant for this, given that he also co-wrote and co-produced Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines," which was successfully sued for copyright infringement by the family of Marvin Gaye for plagiarizing elements of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up.")

Whatever happens, it was really nice to have my "ear" validated to such a significant degree. (I always wondered how one becomes an "expert witness" in musically-related copyright infringement claims.)

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