Ed Sheeran won a major legal battle in the UK High Court this week when it admitted he had not plagiarized part of his song shape of you, and therefore would not be liable for any copyright claims.
The four-time Grammy winner’s 2017 hit song is Spotify’s most streamed song and has received over 5.6 billion views on YouTube. One of 12 tracks from Sheeran’s third album, shape of you helped propel the album to the top of charts around the world and won the 2018 Grammy Award for Best Pop Solo Performance.
Sheeran has taken legal action to challenge a claim by Sami Chokri, aka Sami Switch, who argued the global pop star’s song copied part of his 2015 song Oh why.
Leaving the legal burden behind, Sheeran said he was fighting the allegations because “claims like this are far too common now” and there were “only a limited number of footnotes and very few of chords used in pop music”.
“A coincidence is inevitable… there are only 12 notes available,” said the 31-year-old.
So what makes a song pop, and do coincidences ever happen? And why are there 12 notes?
Where does pop music come from?
Pop, pop, pop music. Pop, pop, pop music. So Goes The 1979 Earworm Pop music by M, the euro-pop project of English musician Robin Scott.
There are a number of variations in the style and names of pop music, from brit-pop to art-pop and swamp-pop, but it all comes from the same place. Rock ‘n’ roll and folk music intersected with jazz and blues, giving rise to “pop” (popular) music and the dazzling array of pop stars over the years, from the Ronettes and Madonna to Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and BTS from South Korea.
However, if it was the King of Pop Michael Jackson who was doing beat itthe Supremes singing Baby Love or more recently Outkast getting down to business Hi you!they all sang from the same collection of pop songs.
Are there really only “so many notes and very few chords” available to musicians?
Well yes. The 12 musical notes used in Western music are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, plus the five equivalent flats and sharps in between.
Ed Sheeran is far from the first musician, and will not be the last, to find himself defending allegations of plagiarism. Australian working men have fought a long-running public battle over claims of their hit song Downstairs copied part of the children’s song Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree.
More recently, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin have successfully defended claims that stairway to Heaven owed at least part of its success to Page’s song-like guitar riff Bullof the American group Spirit.
Listen to the previous Led Zeppelin song Traveling Riverside Blues then give the stone temple pilots Interstate love song a lap. Did they rip off Led Zeppelin, borrow a riff – or, as seems more likely, simply pay homage to a band that influenced their development?
Musician and host of Double J’s song tower program Henry Wagons agrees with Sheeran’s assertion about the 12 notes of popular music creating reminders of songs that preceded them, often unconsciously.
“When you play in your first band, everyone plays 12-bar blues, and every song is kind of a version of that,” Wagons says.
“Where the nuance is is in the delivery, in the feel and the emotional impact of the vocals. There are the 12 notes and every pop song is more or less a combination of that…we’re not talking not from a microtonal acid jazz artist who uses some kind of wild chords.
“Ed Sheeran’s songs are so universal…his music is designed to reach as many people as possible. He appeals to nostalgia and memory for melodies and patterns that have resonated before and will resonate again.
Has music, and pop music in particular, always been like this?
The Russian composer, pianist and conductor Igor Stravinsky once said that “the 12 notes of each octave and the variety of rhythms give me opportunities that no human genius will ever exhaust”.
It was this variety, or nuance as Henry Wagons calls it, that in 1971 – the same year Stravinsky died – the pop world celebrated the genius of Carole King. I feel the earth movingby Marvin Gaye What is happeningThe Who is Will no longer be fooled and Cat Stevens’ peace train.
All unique in their own way, each of these songs relies on the same limited number of notes, crafted with their own distinct melody. Today’s pop stars like Lorde use their own filtering process and their own individuality and in doing so are quite distinct from an artist like, say, Madonna, who is the hit from 1983 Holiday made her a global pop sensation. Lorde’s hit song Royals ushered in a new twist on pop, but with the same notes available for Madonna and Stravinsky.
Either way, paying homage to a musical master is part of songwriting tradition.
“When you look back at masters of song, like Bob Dylan, he’s talking about cutting your teeth on early blues legends and folk artists,” Wagons says. “A lot of the greatest, most original artists admit to being a sort of collage of their influences.
“As a musician, I’m flattered when someone compares my work to a wildly successful artist. I take that as a compliment.”