When it comes to originality, artists have a fine line to toe. At best, using similar sounding song elements is an homage, a nod to the past and to their influences, an easter egg of sorts for the listener to stumble across. At worst, theyâ€™re considered a cheap rip-off, a copyâ€”unoriginal and unacceptable. We often look at originality as being solely black and white, but there seems to be a lot of gray regarding where exactly the line is drawn.
On one hand, look at Fall Out Boy, Halsey, or the handful of other artists who have intertwined samples, borrowed lyrics, or name-dropped their influences to put a twist on new music. Fall Out Boy lead the way with their massive arena rock anthems that draw upon classic melodies, like the intro from â€œTomâ€™s Dinerâ€ and the wacky riff from The Munsters theme, to add a flair of nostalgia and maybe even memorability. It definitely works, since â€œUma Thurmanâ€ and â€œCenturiesâ€ have become quite the earworms. Halsey did something similar on her stellar single â€œNew Americana,â€ which slides in a few lines from Notorious B.I.Gâ€™s â€œJuicyâ€ and name-drops both Biggie and Nirvana as influences. Itâ€™s a brilliant relatability tactic: she taps into the tastes of her audience, knowing theyâ€™ll recognize those names and those lyrics and connect with the song even more.
Image from Consequence of Sound
On the other hand, consider the accidents, like Sam Smithâ€™s breakout hit â€œStay With Meâ€ and how clearly similar it is to Tom Pettyâ€™s â€œI Wonâ€™t Back Down.â€ Though 25 years apart, the two hooks are pretty much the same. Itâ€™s also one of the simplest chord progressions, making it perfect for a pop song and incredibly easy to replicate, even by coincidence, which is what Sam Smith claimed. Just last year, Robin Thicke actually faced a massive lawsuit for his â€œaccidentâ€ with â€œBlurred Lines.â€ Bearing extremely strong resemblances to Marvin Gayeâ€™s popular song â€œGot To Give It Up,â€ Thickeâ€™s tune ended up costing $7.4 million in payout to Gayeâ€™s family.
The main difference here is permissionâ€”with Fall Out Boy and Halsey, among many others, the songs are clearly using samples and the writers are given credit, as opposed to Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, and again, many others, who attempted original songs that just didnâ€™t end up being so original (whether or not theyâ€™re stolen is a different article). But it all comes down to the same idea: listeners love familiarity.
â€œThis can be interpreted as music becoming increasingly formulaic in terms of instrumentation under increasing sales numbers due to a tendency to popularize music styles with low variety and musicians with similar skills,â€ the study says. â€œOnly a small number of styles in popular music manage to sustain a high level of instrumentational complexity over an extended period of time.â€
In psychology, there exists a â€œfamiliarity principle,â€ also known as the mere-exposure effect. Itâ€™s when people develop a preference for something that is familiar. This can apply to words, shapes, people, and sounds, especially music. The familiarity principle explains why you can hate a song at first, but grow to like it after a few listens, and why the uniformity that develops in popular genres is still appealing.
It could also explain why repeated melodies, riffs, chords, and phrases captivate usâ€”even in a completely different song. Hearing the familiar notes of â€œTomâ€™s Dinerâ€ in the Fall Out Boy song â€œCenturiesâ€ is exciting rather than boring, and itâ€™s the same for the familiarity we find in Sam Smithâ€™s â€œStay With Me,â€ and pretty much every pop song ever. The repetition of sounds lends itself to recognition, which is something the human brain is hard-wired to do.
Biggie inserts that sense of familiarity, too, on â€œJuicy,â€ which features a sample originally from Mtumeâ€™s 1983 song â€œJuicy Fruit.â€ B.I.G. changed the lyrics and the vocalist, but kept the influential melody thatâ€™s been sampled in several other songs. In fact, itâ€™s the exact sample thatâ€™s carried over to Halseyâ€™s hit, â€œNew Americana.â€ She changes the lyrics as well, but the tune is unmistakable. Now this influence has been passed down through generations and a simple string of notes has a sonic lineage in the music world. No, itâ€™s not original to borrow someone elseâ€™s melody, but in this case, using the sample carries even more weight for a listenerâ€”it implies an ancestry thatâ€™s arguably more culturally and historically significant than something completely new.
Thereâ€™s a theory that true originality may not even exist, that everything we create is influenced in some way by what has already been done. Science proves that our brains like it that way. The quest for originality need not be so black and white. Acknowledging the history of influence is a gray area, but one that undoubtedly makes music enjoyable on a deeper level. American author Kurt Vonnegut once said, â€œWeâ€™re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. Thatâ€™s what it is to be alive.â€ While I love this quote, Iâ€™d tweak it just a little when it comes to music: We must embrace the past no matter what. Besides, the act of ignoring our predecessors dooms us to repeat the past in a way that may just result in â€œcoincidence.â€
An abridged version of this article was originally published in Substream Magazine #51.Â