11 Mar 2015

Blurred lines: songs that sound a little too familiar

A jury awards Marvin Gaye’s children £5million after ruling singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams copied their father’s music – but which other artists have very familiar tunes?

The Gayes’ lawyer branded Williams and Thicke liars who went beyond trying to emulate the sound of Gaye’s late -1970s music and copied the R&B legend’s hit “Got to Give It Up” outright.

Williams told jurors that Gaye’s music was part of the soundtrack of his youth, but said he didn’t use any of it to create “Blurred Lines.” How many more artists have been accused of copyright in the past?

Shakira v Ramon Vasquez

In 2014, Shakira’s single “Loca” was ruled a copy “Loca con su Tiguere”, a mid-1990s song composed by Dominican songwriter Ramon Vasquez.

In 2013 Will.i.am and Chris Brown were accused of stealing house producers Mat Zo and Arty track “Rebound”. Will.i.am later said he was rectifying the issue in an undisclosed licensing deal.

The Black Eyed Peas were sued by Ohio disc jockey Lynn Tolliver, claiming that his song “I Need a Freak” was sampled without his permission in the Black Eyed Peas song “My Humps.”

Sam Smith v Tom Petty

More recently, Sam Smith was forced to pay songwriting royalties to Tom Petty after fans pointed out his song “Stay With Me” sounded very similar to the 1989 classic I “Won’t Back Down”.

However, Petty took it rather well: “All my years of song-writing have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”

In 2013, Justin Bieber and Usher were sued for copyright infringement. Two Virginia-based songwriters, Devin Copeland and Mareio Overton, claimed the song “Somebody To Love” contained similarities to a song of the same name that they wrote in 2008.

Calvin Harris v Chris Brown

Calvin Harris accused Chris Brown of ripping off his No 1 single, “I’m Not Alone”. The Scottish musician told the Guardian, he “choked on [his] cornflakes” when Brown’s new single, “Yeah 3x”, came on the radio.

In 2010 eager music fans claimed that the beginning of Taylor Swift’s hit single “Haunted” sounded like “The Scientist” by Coldplay… however some fans have said that both intros were “stolen” from The Cranberries earlier hit “Zombie”.

Finite combinations?

Do artists have an excuse for going back over old territory? Well YouTuber VSauce did the maths and concluded the possible number of combinations of sounds that could be contained in a five minute audio file is around 2 to the power of 211,000,000.

That’s a lot – but it also includes plenty of noise.

There are a finite number of tones our ears can distinguish and just a few notes in common in different songs can make the song sound similar.

The possible musical variations within one octave is around 123,511,210,975,209,861,511,554,928,715,787,036, according to VSauce’s calculations.

Despite the vast possibilities most modern pop songs prefer to stick to a small selection of time signatures, keys and musical cadences.