Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Commercial music composition for advertising, film and other media is often created from a model, sometimes called a ‘scratch’ or ‘temp’ track. But even music created for purely 'artistic purposes' conforms to the dictates of external format. II–V–I, anybody? IV–I? Are you going to stay clear of two of the most popular chord progressions because they've been used before? Probably not. It would be a bit like saying one is going to embargo vowels because the letters 'a', 'e', 'i', 'o' and 'u' all represent phonetic clichés. We don't even abandon real clichés because despite their lack of originality, they may still nevertheless represent a truism. At the very least, they may be employed as useful shorthand in our daily and informal communication.

For purposes of media commissions, modeling can be extremely useful for many reasons –direction and budget estimation to name two. That said, the practice also comes with an inherent possibility of producing a mediocre derivate, not to mention risk of plagiarizing the source, whether by inadvertent or intentional action.

This begs the question:

Can a copy ever equal or surpass the original?

Or can it even just simply exist as an enjoyable and entertaining alternate to the source from which it is born?

Naturally it depends how one defines 'copy'. In the present case we mean a derivative work, but not necessarily a variation on a source as the word is commonly used, especially in a pejorative sense. Rather, our definition of Derivative is more closely aligned with the way the term is used in mathematics, being "a measure of how a function changes as its input changes..."

Anyway, the answer as it turns out is an unequivocal 'Yes'. And as a matter of fact, it happens all the time. For instance, take The Beatles, relative to every other single band that followed them, and which claim the Fab Four as a direct inspiration. Or at the other end of the audio spectrum, take free form jazz and ask yourself how free it actually is once you understand 'the rules' players employ that enjoy expressing themselves within that format. Free it may be, but complete and unintelligible audio anarchy, rarely, which it would have to be, of course, if it actually were free.

But how then is it possible that the collective works of any specific genre can claim originality from one other when they might all be formed from the same creative building blocks?

Thousands of blues songs, for instance, share nearly identical melodic licks without one being considered a copy or infringement of another. Compare Texas' Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Baby Please Don’t Go” to Chicago's Muddy Waters' “Mannish Boy.” Each work is wholly original even if both remain identifiable as blues based. So, the two tunes can't be completely unique; they must share some commonalities –those things that make these blues a uniquely American blues, despite regional idiosyncrasies, and not, say Central Asian khuumii, which is also, arguably, a blues of another independently formed and Asiatic kind.

Similarly, ‘Simple Simon Met a Pie Man…’, ‘Johnny had a little Dog…’, ‘Yankee Doodle went to town…’, when sung, do not possess identical melodies, but all three share strikingly similar musical DNA making each immediately recognizable as a children’s song.

I have often asked myself: When a group of works share they same style, what does that mean?

Likewise, when comparing two works that share creative building blocks:

Where does originality end and plagiarism begin?

–A lot closer in music than in prose, I imagine, for while the adoption of one unacknowledged sentence maybe considered intellectual theft by most who learn of it, the appropriation and practice of an entire catalog of licks and executions by those who love a certain genre is arguably what makes a given popular musician one kind of stylist and not another.

That said, there is a practice today, among mash up artists to layer one popular musical work over another. The resulting audio collage can generate a potentially new musical experience, but it is as often implemented as a kind of postmodern Critical Theory litmus test, in order to demonstrate, arguably, the bereft inspiration of one artist or another.

But the truth is, unlike language, music's combinations are limited. That's not simply my opinion, by the way; that's actually the way the math works out.

The Math of Originality

How many words are there in the English language?

As of this writing, the English language hovers at around one million words, and its speakers might generate new words every day (although what eventually makes it into the common lexicon is another story).

On the other hand, the Key of C contains 7 notes. Likewise the Key of G. And there are only 12 major and 12 minor keys to work with. Naturally, there are various ways to define or modify a key, so that one might reasonably suggest that there are more than 12 options available to us. Regardless, barring the wholesale adoption of a completely different theory of music in the west, then the melodic permutations –however you define them– are not endless, especially when we limit potential combinations to useful combinations, and then further limit those results to pleasing combinations.

So, guess how many notes are contained in the twelve-tone system of equal temperament employed in the composition of every single musical work in the western canon in the last 300 hundred years?

Well, that would be 12, because this widely used system of which we are long accustomed divides the octave into exactly 12 parts.

Useful Musical Combinations

Granted, octaves repeat at higher and lower frequencies, so that a grand piano (and the cumulative range of all musical instruments) generally affords us about 8 octaves of pitch choices. On a piano, that adds up to 88 piano keys. Therefore, allowing for repetition of any given note, we have at our disposal over a billion melodic combinations, which almost sounds like the number of melodies out there to be conjured up is infinite.

But if we relegate all similarly named notes equal value regardless of frequency, and ignore repetitions or eliminations, then there are just less than five hundred million musical permutations allowed. By this I mean, we say C1, C2, C3, etc and C1-C1, C2-C2, C3-C3, etc all serve to indicate the same note, C, so that a given sequence of pitches –a melody– composed from a chromatic scale and then transposed in parallel fashion to another key or octave can not be considered wholly unique from the original melodic placement.

Similarly, 'Pop Goes The Weasel' is still Pop Goes The Weasel' whether it is performed in C at the lower range of a marimba or whether it is played in Bb at the upper range of a trumpet, and regardless of what harmonic choices might support it, and not two or more distinct melodies.

Granted 500 million options is still a pretty big number, but when was the last time significantly large populations chilled out for any substantial length of time to 12-tone compositions? Or even a room full of people? Right, on a historical time line that begins in 1700 and stretches to infinity, the answer is closer to never than most fans of Serialism would care to admit.

More commonly, the music of the masses as it has been composed in the west for the last 300 years is produced by various arrangements of the diatonic scale, being the 7 distinct notes which express a common key. These seven notes can be considered the most 'useful' pitch options available to us because audiences generally find them pleasing, and the number of permutations they provide is just over 5000.

Personally, I would be quite surprised to learn if four or five hundred years after the invention of the equal temperament system, not each and every 7-note combination had been employed already. In fact, I think it's closer to the truth to assume that prolific composers and improvisational musicians cycle through every single one of these combinations on a rather frequent basis.

So, obviously, musicians appropriate from one another –and themselves!– and they do it all the time, not to mention every single time someone takes a solo. In fact, they have no choice in the matter, or there would be no music. Such sourcing and re-arranging of pre-existing elements does not indicate a meager imagination, because in the hands of a capable talent other parameters come into play which allow for infinite variability, prominent among them being 'Time' and 'Feeling'.

And in fact, it is also by this process that styles and genres are born and also how traditions stay alive.

Which is not to say originality can never be achieved, but generally what we strive for when we compose a new work in an existing idiom is a new expression born from familiar materials and performed within an existing set of rules, conventions or framework, and not something sprung out of a new theory (unless that is our task, and if it is, well, good luck winning mass appeal (or even a single client) with that). It is hard enough to get people who live on opposite sides of the same planet (and sometimes even the same couch) to appreciate, much less enjoy, each other's music.

And God help the drummer attempting to hold on to his or her so-called trademark beats, because each nifty new rhythm will without a doubt become the bed of every single Jamaican pop song by next summer’s end, and not a judge on the planet will hear evidence, complaint or accusation of intellectual property theft.

Beats, once born, belong to everybody. Not always melody, though.

Generating Clones or Producing Original Kindred Works?

Whether literally or intuitively, media composers face a similar issues whenever they subject a temp track to analysis. For them, the question is not how to clone a copy, but how to reproduce a kindred work.

Producing Original Kindred Works from analysis of a model is a process that requires one to determine the musical DNA of one given piece, and then to combine it with DNA of one's own. Not to simply find inspiration not from another composer’s thematic ideas, but to draw from a mish mash of archetypal, interstitial, semiotic, memetic and bio-musicological microstructures (audio units smaller than a motif) inherent in what we define as the model.

And then once identified, to synthesize these ‘structures’ with one’s own unique content and concepts, so that the result is in fact a wholly original work, derivative only in so far as one may say, they share the same style or ‘parent’ creative, that one piece was the inspiration for another, and confidently leave it at that.

By using terms like 'mish mash' and 'parent', I mean to imply that a kindred work is never composed via the asexual replication of source material, but by combining bio-memetic material from two different and unrelated sources, and then allowing for intelligent design and development.

A man and woman meet and form a child. Similarly, one composer or artist assimilates another composer’s or artist's ideas and yields not a copy but a wholly unique and separate work.

Afterwards we do not say a child (assuming it is not an unauthorized clone) is ‘a rip’ or ‘ripped off’ from either parent. More correctly we recognize that although both works, parent and child, are created from the same basic, elementary particles, that the child is capable of being as wholly original unto itself as its parent/s.

So, when faced with a temp track, what is it that we look for in our musical analysis?

A classical theorist might examine chord progression and melodic direction. But that kind of surface analysis can only ever yield a reproduction. Our purpose is different, not to appropriate a well executed concept in order to create a parallel work, but rather to create another original work that produces a parallel feeling. And in order to do that, our first task will be to identify a given work’s artistic and sonic DNA so that we might then combine it with our own, and thereby fulfill both a client's commission and yield our own contributions to the repertoire, and perhaps in the process also produce a work that will inspire someone else to make another piece of music.

* * *

Photo Collage by Terry O'Gara.

No comments: