June 10, 2020 Musicology, Opinion No Comments

For The Weeknd, one much-publicized lawsuit went away, but another comes back around to take its place. The band, “Yeasayer” had claimed The Weeknd’s “Pray For Me” (a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar that appeared in the Black Panther soundtrack) sampled without permission their 2007 track called “Sunrise.”

Here’s that complaint. It was rather a weird claim, in my opinion. I could easily enough hear what Yeasayer was talking about. But it was quickly evident to me that the audio snippets in question, while similar, were different; that is, not of the same derivation. Anyway, that’s over. A joint filing from both sides says they’ve agreed it wasn’t an infringement.

But there’s another existing suit, filed in 2019, that should begin to make news again soon. This one, a bit stickier I’d say.

Three British songwriters – Brian Clover, Scott McCulloch, and Billy Smith are suing The Weekend, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye, because “A Lonely Night” from The Weeknd’s huge “Starboy” album sounds way too much like a 2004 track of theirs called “I Need To Love.”

And the complaint includes an “access” explanation that involves the three songwriters having had a publishing deal with a company called “Big Life Music” who showed their songs around for years. Big Life was eventually bought by Universal which never found an artist to “exploit” the songwriters’ songs, and evidently told them so, relinquishing Universal’s claim to those songs. Not long after, Universal put out ‘Starboy” which included “A Lonely Night” which to the plaintiffs’ ears, sounded like their track.

As far as I can tell “I Need To Love” was never published. Here though is a youtube video that purports to play the two tracks back to back. Since I haven’t found a copy of “I Need To Love,” in the wild, I don’t know what if anything has been done to make them sound more alike. I’ll look around. But the similarity is plainly obvious, as far as that goes. Listen for yourself.

As the complaint reads, “Subjectively, I believe these similarities are so clear as to be obvious even to a casual listener.” And I’d certainly expect that to be true. I haven’t transcribed the respective phrases, but if and when I do, and I post them here, they’re going to look very similar, probably nearly identical. Also, I’m guessing they’re the chorus hook in both tracks. I’m also guessing that while these phrases appear repeatedly, they’ll be the only aspects worth analyzing.

It will be interesting. Do they sound similar? Yes. Did the plaintiff’s song come out first? Yes. Did the accused infringer have access? Uh, plausibly, I guess? Is the material protectable by copyright? Ay, there’s the interesting part.

Again, I haven’t gotten into this on any sort of molecular level, but I suspect it’s one of those times where you can begin to think of lots of songs that use this same melodic and harmonic vocabulary.

“Speak Softly Love” is the theme from “The Godfather.” Rhythmically it’s different, and it passes between the two harmonic tonalities at different points in its four bars, but they’re the same two tonalities. And melodically, the shape is the same, the high value notes — the ones that give the melody its character more than the others — are pretty much the same.

Similarly, when I distill these two melodies down to their “high value notes,” as I call them, I find I can begin to think of lots of songs that use that melodic device when passing between these very common chords. And moreover that all of the note-for-note similarity that’s clearly between these two tracks, and will look so impressive as a percentage of like notes falling on like beat subdivisions is arguably driven by the number of syllables in the respective lyrics and the natural shape of human language that songwriters have to accommodate (good songwriters anyway). One story I read mentioned Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass,” and that’s apt. “Heart Of Glass” is in a major key, so the analysis would look pretty different on paper, but with just a bit of consideration you can draw lots of relatable parallels even beyond the nearly identical rhythms. Maybe I’ll write some of that out and post it later.

Someone mentioned a James Bond theme as well, and that’s going to be a thing where the most high value note of all in these two songs, (the sixth degree of the minor scale if you’re counting) will be the same as in a James Bond theme, only an octave lower. I can hear it in my head, but I’m not sure what movie(s) it’s from. Will find that out too. At any rate, it’s a valid point.

So I’ll look forward to seeing how this goes. And I’ll try to come back and fortify this with some written examples of my thinking. But leaving it here for now, and of course, welcome your thoughts.

**** Already I can update this a little… the James Bond theme that’s relevant is from “The World Is Not Enough.” The “someone” who mentioned it was “Complete Music Update,” (great site) and it has more specifically in common than the more general idea that was passing through my head. I still think I can find a classic James Bond motif that David Arnold was thinking about when he wrote The World Is Not Enough’. It will come to me.

Written by Brian McBrearty