A linguist called Dicky Gilbers became news last week. It is always interesting to find out why someone becomes news. Gilbers became news because he accused all songwriters in the yearly Top 2000 from plagiarism – apart from Queen. “Artists think they create their work themselves, but they all sing the same song”, Gilbers is reputed to have said.
I read various reports on his – yes, on his what? His theory? Right, his theory (Monty Python: “I have a theory, which is this theory, which is mine, which is my theory…” et cetera).
In some of the reports Gilbers mentions that basically the Top 2000 is Mozart; in others he forecasts that Queen will not stick in the Top 2000 precisely because they do something else than the other groups. “Songwriters are always searching for the perfect song. In this search they always end up with the same chord combinations. Listeners like these chords because some notes simply belong to each other”, he is quoted in some reports. In other reports he mentions that notes “simply belonging” to each other is a universal phenomenon. And in a regional radio interview he was quite clear that he, himself, was a slight bit above many of the universal chord combinations so liked by the masses – which, of course, he would not hold against those masses.
Sometimes you find such a lot of nonsense in only a few sentences that you simply don’t know where to begin to say something about it. Of course I basically don’t care what Gilbers, or any one else, wants to say about music. I even find it interesting. Anyone may say anything about music; whether it is plausible or simply wrong is often not really the point. Here is someone with an obvious passion for music forcing the theoretical notions from his own field on music while borrowing the plagiarism-idea from the neighboring law school – a disastrous combination, even more so because it is spoken by “the linguist” ex cathedra: “Here is science speaking to you, and in case you did not know, YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE!!”
Of course he did not exactly say those words, but I can not help hearing them loud and clear. And that annoys me.
So to reassure you, just a couple of points. The fact that Mozart and the Beatles have something (without a capital; George really wrote Something, not Wolfgang – no plagiarism there I can tell you) in common is true. And it is very old news. But that “something” is so general that it may be of interest in theory but hardly in practice. Most people hear more differences than samenesses, and are far more interested in the differences. And of course that is the case with all the songs from the Top 2000: yes, many of them are related to each other (but believe me, Queen is hardly the exemplary odd one out) but that is not what listeners are interested in – listeners are interested in difference, not in sameness.
Connecting this to “plagiarism” is simply idiocy. Plagiarism is a term from law (with heavy economic connotations), not a musical one. I guess the news value of Gilbers sprouted from his using the p-word – if he did it consciously he is a marketing genius. But it is completely misplaced. Especially if you remember that music making is a question of constant recycling – it has to be because music is only there when it sounds. I will come back on that line of thought some other time.
And then the universal claim. Notes “simply belong” to each other. What is meant there? In musicology I think it is by now agreed that universals of music are rather restricted: there is music everywhere, there is something like an octave (but that interval is not always the pivotal interval in the music system), there are intervals, there are songs, there are instruments – that is about it, for sameness; the rest is difference. But C – G7 – C is far from universal; and the fact that it has conquered quite some world at present has maybe less to do with universal musical characteristics than with the lopsided (neo-)colonial relations our world suffers from so much.
So don’t feel an asshole when you hear Gilbers. Do not hold “it” against him (yes, I am referring here to a pun in a song which will be somewhere in the Top 2000). Just smile gently. It is all meaningless.