Monday, September 6, 2010

Glee-fully Looking Back at Children in Eternity

Welcome to another pseudo-Jay's Playlist! Today's topic is about confused familiarity with new musical themes.

The other day I was watching the first few episodes of the show "Glee" and heard a theme I recognized. As two characters (who are destined to be together as the season progresses) begin shyly flirting with each other a simple, beautiful piano theme plays in the background. Each time I heard it I racked my brain trying to determine where I heard it from. A quick Google search brought up the song "Looking Back" by Kerry Muzzey: (beginning with the theme used 0:56)

While the mystery of the song title was solved, a new one presented itself: I had never heard of the piece before, so why was it so familiar? How could I hum the upcoming notes to the piece even before I had even heard them the first time?

The answer came when a began listening to my "favorites" playlist with all my top ranked singles. One of my favorite pieces from 1996 suddenly called up emotional Glee scenes in my mind as it played:

Soon after that, my Final Fantasy piano playlist began, and it happened again:

It is amazing how a simple melody pattern can appear so often in my emotional favorites list, and in roughly the same key no less. "Looking Back" and "Eternity" both use the B-flat, A, F to B-Flat, A, E-flat pattern (Eternity pulls the e-flat from the baseline though while the treble still plays the F), and Children does the same pattern but with A-flat as the starting note.

Upon hearing this many people may call it plagiarism, but really it is just a coincidence. In the end, there is a finite number of melodic combinations of the 12 chromatic notes, so the same combination is bound to appear in numerous pieces. Malcom Gladwell addresses this in his essay on "Plagiarism":

Ferrara once served as an expert witness for Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was being sued by Ray Repp, a composer of Catholic folk music. Repp said that the opening few bars of Lloyd Webber’s 1984 “Phantom Song,” from “The Phantom of the Opera,” bore an overwhelming resemblance to his composition “Till You,” written six years earlier, in 1978. As Ferrara told the story, he sat down at the piano again and played the beginning of both songs, one after the other; sure enough, they sounded strikingly similar. “Here’s Lloyd Webber,” he said, calling out each note as he played it. “Here’s Repp. Same sequence. The only difference is that Andrew writes a perfect fourth and Repp writes a sixth.”

But Ferrara wasn’t quite finished. “I said, let me have everything Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote prior to 1978— ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘Joseph,’ ‘Evita.’ ” He combed through every score, and in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” he found what he was looking for. “It’s the song ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ ” Ferrara started playing it. It was immediately familiar. “It’s the first phrase of ‘Phantom Song.’ It’s even using the same notes. But wait—it gets better. Here’s ‘Close Every Door,’ from a 1969 concert performance of ‘Joseph.’ ” Ferrara is a dapper, animated man, with a thin, well-manicured mustache, and thinking about the Lloyd Webber case was almost enough to make him jump up and down. He began to play again. It was the second phrase of “Phantom.” “The first half of ‘Phantom’ is in ‘Benjamin Calypso.’ The second half is in ‘Close Every Door.’ They are identical. On the button. In the case of the first theme, in fact, ‘Benjamin Calypso’ is closer to the first half of the theme at issue than the plaintiff’s song. Lloyd Webber writes something in 1984, and he borrows from himself.”

In the “Choir” case, the Beastie Boys’ copying didn’t amount to theft because it was too trivial. In the “Phantom” case, what Lloyd Webber was alleged to have copied didn’t amount to theft because the material in question wasn’t original to his accuser. Under copyright law, what matters is not that you copied someone else’s work. What matters is what you copied, and how much you copied.

In this case, it doesn't matter whether the composers knew they were "copying" each other, the end result is the same: three beautiful, emotional themes. So the next time I hear a new theme that sounds familiar, I should listen to my "favorites" playlist as I may have discovered yet another pattern that emotionally resonates with me.

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