“Good composers borrow, great ones steal.” Igor Stravinsky

In light of the recent Katy Perry – Dark Horse lawsuit, it would seem copyright enforcement has run amok.

But borrowing from great artists has been a long tradition in music, and great singers certainly “steal” from other singers.

In this episode, John discusses why you need to borrow from a wide variety of artists in order to create your “original” voice.


New Science of Singing 2.0 Course

Episode Transcript

Episode 107 – Great Singers Steal!

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Seriously, thank you. But today I’m a little angry and frustrated. To quote George Costanza, I am angry like an old man sending soup back at a deli. The reason is the recent Katy Perry judgment where “Dark Horse” was found to infringe upon the song “Joyful Noise” by the rapper Flame. And this– I think the verdict was for around two and a half million dollars. And this was for a little sequence of notes on the minor scale that costs two and a half million dollars and that apparently now is copyrightable. And this is a problem with copyright law and a jury trial in particular. And the plaintiffs in this case insisted upon a jury trial, because juries, if you ask any attorney, you can lose a winner and win a loser. It’s a roll of the dice. And juries can be confused and misled because juries are not professionals, and I’m almost positive there were no professional musicians and certainly no songwriters on that jury. So they are left to be influenced by the experts, and the experts are people who are handsomely paid and shopped for until they get someone that will give the exact opinion that either side wants. And in this case, they found a musicologist who somehow considered this little minor scale fragment a piece of music that a non piano player could learn to play in five minutes, that children banging around on the piano could likely come up with. If you had a room full of kids and gave them all a piano, within about 10 minutes, some kid is going to end up playing this little riff or a variation of it. Because the Katy Perry version is not exactly what was in “Joyful Noise.” It was a variation of it. And also, the jury had to be convinced that Katy Perry and/or her team of songwriters and producers heard the song “Joyful Noise.” Now, Katy Perry testified under oath that she didn’t. However, I guess the jury decided that she was lying, and that she not only heard the song, but appropriated enough of it to ride off of the success of this song, and somehow damage the songwriter. This is just mind blowing. Now, there is a legal precedent, I think it’s called acts à faire, or scènes à faire, that’s it. And it is, within any art form, there are certain things that are universal. A magician saying “Abracadabra,” a story starting off with “Once upon a time,” you cannot copyright this because it’s universal within the art form. And a little minor scale riff should be considered universal within the art form. Now, does it follow a similar rhythmic pattern? Yes. They both share that similarity. But the timbre and texture of the sounds is not the same.

The song does not share the same chords. It does not share the same melody. And we’re wandering into really, really murky waters here. Now I’ll contrast this with Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Now that took the baseline of “Under Pressure” and specifically used it as the entire basis of the song, and specifically recreated the sound of John Deacon’s bass. It literally sounds like a sample. Now, that never went to trial. There was a settlement out of court. There were threats of lawsuits as far as I understand. But that starts to step into the realm of it. But these lawsuits drive me crazy. There’s the story Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates tells, when they were doing “We Are the World” and Michael Jackson came up and he said, “Hey, I have to apologize. But I lifted the baseline of ‘Billie Jean’ from your song ‘I Can’t Go for That,'” to which Daryl Hall replied, “Well, don’t worry about it. We stole it from somewhere else.” And that’s the thing; musicians borrow. And there’s the old saying, “Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.”

It was a classical discipline to take existing folk music and turn it into symphonic pieces and base it upon it. In popular music, you’re only dealing with a handful of chords. Most songs these days are just a few chords. You’re dealing with primarily the pentatonic scale, just five notes of either the major or minor scale, and you’re creating music out of that. Now, in modern music with current production techniques, we have so many variables, sound and texture and depth, that melody and chords are taking a bit of more of a background role to the role of texture and sound and rhythm, and really starts to become questionable how much of that you can copyright. And again, it goes to this scènes à faire idea. Is it really wholly truly an original act? Is it an original magic act? Am I making the Statue of Liberty disappear with very certain specific techniques and pattern? Or did I just pull a rabbit out of my hat? That’s where it gets really tricky. And the one that really troubles me is the Marvin Gaye versus Robin Thicke,  “Blurred Lines” and the Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give It Up.” Now when I first heard “Blurred Lines,” I thought, Oh man, they’re recreating that groove from “Got to Give It Up.” I remember that song from when I was a kid. I always loved that song. But it’s almost an homage. It’s some cowbells, a certain groove, some party noises. It’s not sampled. It’s not the exact same drum sound. None of the dialogue in the background has been lifted. It’s just kind of a feel. And I’m flashing back to, Tears for Fears did a song “Sowing the Seeds of Love,” which was a complete Beatles homage with a piccolo trumpet solo right out of “Penny Lane.” And you’re celebrating what’s come before and you’re making it something new. But now it’s lawsuits and just copyright trolls. And if you’re a songwriter,  you’re in a really, really dangerous place. Now I don’t even know what advice I can give you. I mean, now you’ve got the Marvin Gaye estate once again. Now they’re suing Ed Sheeran coming up. I forget the song. It’s so maddening. I heard the two songs together and I’m like, it’s a similar feel and chords but it’s not the same song. And “Blurred Lines,” the melody. Not even close. Not the same chords. Nothing was similar. But just kind of a feel that, if you can start copywriting feels, we’re in serious trouble. If you can start copywriting chunks of little pieces of the minor scale, we’re in trouble. It is a world of copyright trolls, and what copyright trolls do is they just sit on their copyrights and just look for anyone doing anything similar and they just sue. And they won’t win them all, but they’ll win enough. You know, it’s funny, the band Spirit. There was a lawsuit against one of their musical pieces and “Stairway to Heaven” and the estate of the songwriter from Spirit– What was his name? Oh, people know. They’re gonna yell at me. I think Jack Cassidy.

It was this descending minor chord pattern that was very similar to “Stairway to Heaven.” And that band had opened for Led Zeppelin before “Stairway to Heaven” was written and they performed that song. And it arguably influenced but it’s a similar piece of the intro of a song that then moves away and there are other pieces of music. I mean, we got 12 notes. They’re going to be things that are similar. And yet songwriters need to be protected from absolute rip offs and stealing, but I’m not seeing this in this case. So there you go. There’s my rant. I actually do have a topic for today’s podcast and it’s going to be on stealing. And it’s going to be stealing from your favorite artist, which is something that I believe is absolutely necessary in your development as a singer. Lawsuits aside, and man, this brings up the mind boggling idea of when is the first person going to sue for a vocal riff? I mean that what this is opening up. If you can sue over this little da-da-da-da, and I’ll probably get sued for that. If you can sue over that little minor scale piece, then when does a very specific Beyoncé riff become copyrightable? I mean, that’s really– I think this opens the Pandora’s box to. However– And you can certainly hear singers that are highly, highly influenced by other singers. I mean, you know Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, I mean, you can hear it. Singers that specifically have been influenced by Adele and Streisand.

Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven” and The Police “Walking on the Moon.” I mean, there’s definitely a Police feel of that song. But did Sting sue? No, he came out on the Grammy’s with Bruno and did a medley of “Locked Out of Heaven” into “Walking on the Moon”, because he appreciates the homage. But back to you and your favorite artists. What you need to do is you need to start stealing from your favorite artists, blindly. I mean, just taking everything you can and dissecting it, working out their riffs, putting their riffs into your songs. But here’s the difference. You don’t steal from one person. You steal from multiple artists, and by stealing, I mean you become strongly influenced by. And this is where the magic of you comes into the process. You are the filter, just like Michael Bublé has filtered Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra through Michael Bublé. And he comes up with something different. So if you are filtering Aretha and Michael Bublé and Adele and Stevie Wonder, if you’re taking these different influences– and it becomes even stronger as you begin to take from singers from other genres. If you’re just stealing from, or borrowing– Let’s make this word a little nicer. If you were being strongly influenced by a single singer, you’re going to have a problem. Not that you are going to be sued, yet, but you’re just going to be a poor imitation of that singer. That’s the thing.

If you take any one singer, and you really try and become a copycat of them, you’re just going to always be a poor imitation. You’re never going to be as good. But if you borrow from two singers in the same genre… But if you start to take multiple singers from different genres and different styles and really absorb what it is they are doing, and really incorporate that into their singing, and their influence in style, the way they shape words and sustain and riff and use dynamics and phrasing, and all of these things. And then as these the singers from these varied styles become filtered through you, and then as you start to find your own voice through that and develop it, and then your own discipline and your own emotion and your own aesthetic – what you really love about music – starts to come through, then you start to create something new. And there’s nothing truly new, except you. And that is the variable no one can take away. And I really believe you need to be led by what it is that you love. Let that be your guidepost. People will ask me ‘what style of music should I sing’ as if you were pre stamped for something. And I tell them, you know what, just that idea of follow your bliss. To quote Joseph Campbell, follow your passions, follow what catches your ear. It’s catching your ear for a reason. And those reasons can be what your mother was singing while you’re in the womb, what you heard, what your parents played when you were a little child. What your first concert was.

I was going to say what your first record was, but that doesn’t exist anymore. But you know, getting those first albums. Man, that’s just a wonderful, wonderful memory that– to sound like an old person, but I really wish young people, just for a little while, could rediscover the magic of having to take their hard-earned money and going out and buying an album and being stuck. You know, albums weren’t transportable. You couldn’t just stick on headphones and go out for a walk, or you couldn’t listen to them while you were driving. Yeah, you could listen to a cassette, but that was a very poor reproduction. But in your little cathedral of music with your speakers and your stereo system and you’d sit with the album cover and stare at lyrics and you would just absolutely be transfixed and you were forced to pay attention. You weren’t distracted. And your albums that needed to take time to grow on you were able to because you weren’t going to waste that money. You were going to spend the time and listen to this album, and those become very profound in your musical development. So that’s my senior moment there. But for you to really take music that you love, really follow what it is that you love while at the same time being open for new music. You know, casting your taste, casting a wide net and allowing yourself to taste from different music and artists before you reject them or put them on a on a shelf for the maybe later maybe never pile. And as you do this, you begin to get develop your core artists and your core music. And again, then you work it into your voice. I want you to deliberately take what it is they do and try and sing like them. Not all the time, but have moments where you’re really trying to sing like that person. Understand what it is that they’re expressing and how they do it, and then bring in another, and then bring in another, and watch yourself just morph and change and grow. So yeah, in this sue happy climate of copyright confusion, I want you to go out there and steal.

All right, if you want more information about me, you can go to johnhenny.com. And I want to let you know I just did a major update to my most popular course on voice science. It’s called the New Science of Singing. So I now call it the New Science of Singing 2.0. But I’ve literally had hundreds of voice teachers and singers go through this course, and it’s learning voices science, not just for science’s sake, because that really doesn’t– well it interests me on some level, but it doesn’t really inform my singing or my teaching. It’s really learning practical science in that understanding how to get more power in your voice, how to fix those breaks, how to get different colors and textures and tune vowels, all of the things that we talked about on this podcast in a really focused form. And then I also have a certification test you can take at the end, and a number of voice teachers have taken this certification test and printed it up and put it in their studio just to show their students and clients that they’re getting more education and they’re really learning. And I have this course right now for $400 off. You can get the full 2.0 course for just $97. All you need to do is go to the show notes for this podcast. And that’s at johnhenny.com/107 for Episode 107. And you’ll see the link there. The sale will be going on for a little while, but I’m really excited about this. And you can also ask me questions within the course. That’s something that I offer. But this course is– I’ve been really happy with the reception of this course. So there is today’s advertisement, if you will. And if you’re interested in voice lessons, I always love working with fans of this podcast. We tend to click well together because this podcast acts as a really good filter for super singers. Just go to johnhenny.com and you can click on lessons and you can get the information there. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.