Thursday, June 23, 2016

Music or Sound?

There’s an interesting court case in progress. Is the iconic motif of  “Stairway to Heaven” by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) a copy of another song? Apparently “Taurus” was sung by the group Spirit in a number of concerts opening for Led Zeppelin. This article from The Guardian is a good enough explanation of the issue, with some audio for perspective.

The case is likely to be settled soon, and in a sense while I understand the issues (well enough) it doesn’t really matter to me how it turns out.

But today I read this Slate interview with a USC Law prof who writes about musical plagiarism issues. It’s interesting throughout. He wants to make a distinction between “music” and “sound.” At issue in the “Stairway to Heaven” case is a chord progression that has been in use for centuries. (For more on that sort of thing, read Alex Ross, “Chacona, Lamento” – oh heck, just read as much Alex Ross as you can.) If I may be simplistic: the issue is whether one can copyright a chord progression.

So, that’s the background. What leapt out at me this morning was this:
These cases [musical plagiarism] are about musical works. And popular music today tend [sic] to have very little original musical expression. It’s typically by musicians who really don’t understand music – they may understand sound, or in a crude way how you put something together. But they don’t understand intellectually how it’s constructed, the relationship between the pitches you’re working with. If you don’t understand that, you can’t be very original. So popular musicians build songs using sonic blocks.

Bold statement? Unfair criticism? Worth considering more deeply? Cranky?

If the observation is fair, it goes a long way to helping me identify why so much music fails to connect with me. And the issue is exacerbated in music in the church, which is already (generally) derivative; are we rehashing poorly conceived sound blocks rather than being inspired by thoughtful musical ideas?

If the observation is fair, it goes a long way to helping me understand why so many churches are content to hire “worship leaders” (i.e song-leaders) with minimal musical knowledge. Help me understand the college student who aspires to be a worship leader but doesn’t want to actually study music.

Do I think the observation is fair? I’ll have to think about it more; I’ll have to consider how far I can say I “understand intellectually how [music is]constructed, the relationship between the pitches,” etc. I will say this: I love me some good melody, supported by interesting harmony, and that’s a combination I miss in much new music.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to master some chords on my ukulele. I’ve got a party to go to tonight, and maybe a cute chick will want to hear “Stairway to Heaven.”