But this really is an oversimplification.
I noticed my friends at I Heart Guitar are interviewing Joe Satriani this week, which reminded me of the Satriani vs Coldplay law suit a few years back – “If I Could Fly” vs “Viva La Vida”. At the time I remember thinking the case would never stand up. Not because of a lack of similarity between the melodies, but because of the massive legal precedent which would be set if a copyright infringement lawsuit of that magnitude were to be successful. Surely enough, the case was dismissed without a legal ruling.
In interesting timing, the same day I am reminded of the Satriani vs Coldplay case, Megadeth’s lead man Dave Mustaine is quoted as saying “Would someone have stolen from me? They would have to have. It is just part of being a musician. There are only 12 notes anyway, man”.
There’s that 12 notes reference again!
Saying that stealing music is just part of being a musician screams wrong to me. Certainly there are cases of musical themes repeating, but in many instances this is not a conscious or malicious decision. Every musician (like everyone else) has a preference for certain sounds, chord combinations and themes over others. This is bound to be evident in the music they make.
But back to the 12 notes idea, consider it further… As explored in Daniel Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music”, each note played could be followed by a different note, or itself again, or a rest. Then consider that any of those notes could be played for any duration – from very short to very long – before starting the process again. Then consider the tempo of the music, the same thing played quickly would have a very different and potentially “new” feel to it. Is a tuba playing the melody, or an electric guitar, or a female soprano? The source producing the notes makes a big difference of course as well. When it comes to vocals, even just a change in the words being sung can make what you hear seem new. Many people have never noticed that “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is the same tune as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. Different time signatures and other musical characteristics add a whole other dimension of change again…
In summary, there is so much more to creating music than copying what has come before. And there is certainly more at the composer’s disposal than just 12 notes!