…became a problem in the Sixties – and KILLED popular music circa 1980.
The thing is, Western popular music is governed by “rules” that were essentially invented by Johann Sebastian Bach, in 1722. And there only being twelve notes in an octave, the number of original memorable melodies – which need to be constructed from logical progressions of notes – are LIMITED.
And around the turn of the Sixties, this fact became problematic.
You see, during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and early Fifties, the songwriters had had a virtually bottomless well of musical possibilities to drain. But thanks to the demands of musical theatre, movies and the recording industry, by 1960 the well was running DRY.
It began with Joe Meek’s “Telstar” – a massive hit, he was immediately slapped with a plagiarism suit from a French composer of film scores. And despite the fact the film had had no British distribution (thus it seems unlikely Joe would ever have heard it) the case meant he never received a PENNY for it, in his lifetime.
Ironically, it eventually got settled in Joe’s favour – three weeks after he blew himself and his landlady away, with Heinz’s shotgun – but that is another story. [And one that is fascinating: you can find it by clicking… http://damienatloppers.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/damien-on-joe-meek/ …but read the rest of this first, eh?]
Equally ironically, Joe then composed “Globetrotter” – which used the same opening five notes as “Venus In Blue Jeans” – a fact which escaped notice at the time.
Two years on, the great John Barry gathered his friends, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley around the piano and played them “Goldfinger” – which he needed them to add lyrics to. But after he hit the first three notes of the melody, both spontaneously sang, “…wider than a mile!”
This was because Goldfinger’s first three notes are the same as Hank Mancini’s “Moon River” – which is why Shirley phrased the second and third syllables of the opening word as she did.
Around the same time, Paul McCartney awoke from a dream with “Yesterday” fixed in his head. Since songs usually took him a while to compose, he figured he must be suffering from cryptomnesia (look it up) and so for months drove everyone mad, playing them the melody and asking them if they had ever heard it before.
The track was eventually released on an album and received no claims whatsoever.
George Harrison, however, was not so lucky. In 1970, he penned “My Sweet Lord” – inspired by “Oh Happy Day” which was OUT of copyright. Nevertheless, its similarity to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” prompted a suit which the highly respected songwriter finally LOST.
The judgement was handed down in 1976 and ROCKED the whole music industry.
There had long been an assumption that only more than four – or five – consecutive melodic notes (chord changes are generic) constituted plagiarism, so a company started up which claimed they would help those accused by proving that virtually ALL note combinations were public domain – having been used in a CLASSIC.
In order to achieve this, they constructed a database of ALL published classical works (like “Shitzenbucket’s Concerto For Swanee Whistle And Kazoo In A Flat” – which obviously does not exist: I just mean DEEPLY OBSCURE pieces).
But it was soon discovered that this was not enough. After much analysis, it was decided that a composition was about more than just MELODY.
While chord-changes were constantly re-used, they were still an integral part of the whole – as was counter-melody, arrangement and “twiddley-bits” (AKA “hooks”) – in COMBINATION.
And so computer programmes (copyright ID) were designed that gave POINTS to ALL of these factors – and the publishers who used them agreed they would save them a lot of money and hassle by allowing a COMPUTER to decide whether conflicting compositions were plagiarism.
However, this arrangement was no good for COMPOSERS – who now feared writing ANYTHING that sounded like a TUNE. Some obtained the copyright ID programmes, only to discover that pretty much ALL logical progressions of notes were ON them.
Thus, since around 1980, original melodies you can hear and immediately whistle have all but DISAPPEARED.
TV themes became drum patterns. Eighties Pop (Pop’s last hurrah) was mostly CHORD-based, with complex electronic rhythms. Nineties Trance had short, repeated phrases. And modern “music” has barely had a whistlable (it’s a word) melody in DECADES. It is atonal RUBBISH.
And all because composers now live in DREAD of being SUED.
So forget New Music – it is DEAD. Pop ruled for eighty years (1920-2000) and during that time, it threw up a PLETHORA of great works. And these days MOST of them can be found FREE, on YouTube.
However, SOME are missing.
These are the ones that the music industry (the Big Three – which USED to be Four) has BLOCKED or had torn down – thanks to their copy ID progs that are now LINKED to the service.
But MOST of the 1920-2000 output is there. The owners figure that people with downloaders will be outnumbered by people who will still go out and BUY the material. Thus YouTube’s clips serve as ADVERTISING.
And that is true – these days, as far as young people are concerned, if an artist is not on YT, they do not EXIST.
In fact, YouTube is a good place to go to discover practical examples of the points made in this article…
Search Cole Porter to find examples of classic melodies from the Twenties to the Early Fifties.
For the Sixties, hit Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” – and “You’re A Lady” by Peter Skellern, for the Seventies (then again, he always WAS a bit retro – okay, anything by Abba).
Then try Chris Rea’s “On The Beach” for the Eighties – a weak melody, but complex chord-changes and a strong hook.
Finally, hit ANY Nineties Trance anthem, for repeating melodic phrases, with great hooks, coupled with solid chord-changes and a driving beat.
After which – NOTHING.
It would have been easy to have called this piece The Day Computers Killed Music – but as always, computers merely SPEED UP a process.
And the problem here is not the process – it is simply that over those eighty years between 1920 and 2000, we USED UP ALL THE MUSIC.