March 7, 2020 Musicology 1 Comment

As musicology case law goes, this ain’t much of anything. But it’s The Big Bang Theory, so we can give it a few minutes, can’t we?

Like Friends had “Smelly Cat,” so The Big Bang Theory has “Soft Kitty,” a little ditty that gets sung periodically to soothe a character who’s feeling sick. Big Bang’s Sheldon’s introduced it as the tune his mom would sing to him when he was a young boy. “Soft Kitty” reappeared in several episodes over the years, and at least once in an episode of “Young Sheldon” the prequel time capsule series. But a few years ago it came to light that the song might not be so original.

There is a one hundred-year-old publishing of another kitty ditty that’s a whole lot like “Soft Kitty.” And my first thought when I heard that was “independent creation?” And since there’s a thing going around lately about some guys who I guess set up an algorithm to formulate, perform and store recordings of every possible melody within a set of parameters, then registered the whole thing for copyright, thus single-handedly rendering all future copyright infringements moot (it doesn’t), I was in an “independent creation” frame of mind anyway.

Forensic musicologists consider the concept of “independent creation” all the time. Copyright law allows for the possibility that two substantially similar works might have coincidently and independently sprung from more than one creator. And this is an available defense against infringement claims.

You consider the case for independent creation a bit in the way you make a case for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe — given enough time and space, pretty much all things must repeat. In the musicology world, the timeframe in which they’re reasonably expected to repeat is a function mostly of the length, complexity, and novelty of the music. That’s just basic probability theory, right. Warm Kitty is a very simple tune both melodically and lyrically but Ellen Newlin Chase and Margaret Chase Perry thought a hundred years is not long enough. Their mom, who died in 2004, was a nursery school teacher who wrote “Warm Kitty” as a poem in the 1930s.

The sheet music can be found all over the place.

And here’s Sheldon singing Soft Kitty for the first time.

It’s very very close, lyrically and melodicly to the 1930’s published Warm Kitty. Next I wondered if The Big Bang characters sing it the same way every time. They don’t.

Take a quick look first at the second one, “Penny 2009 Round,” and even if you don’t read music, consider this version the reliable gold standard even though it’s not precisely what Sheldon sang when he debuted “Soft Kitty” in 2008. In 2009 Sheldon and Penny sang it as a duet and also as a “round.” The melody Penny sings is the one around which all others on my list seem to orbit. Still Sheldon, singing right along with her in “Sheldon 2009 Round,” sang his own slightly different melody — different from Penny and different from his on debut version, “Sheldon 2008.” Here’s that.

So at that point, the song had appeared three times, none the same.

Sheldon’s mom in 2011, sings a fourth version.

Amy in 2017 sings the same melody as Penny did in “Penny 2009 Round,” and she whips out an autoharp and shows us the chordal accompaniment!

That IV chord was a surprise. Could it have been intentionally awkward? Tinfoil hat time.

If you bothered to click the link to the 1930’s publication images, you might notice that the published melody is the one in “Penny 2009” which I called the presumptive “master version.” Then you might notice that the “Warm Kitty” piano arrangement has harmonies mostly in the left-hand part. Those published harmonies are the ones any decent musician might have inferred just from hearing Sheldon’s first singing of “Soft Kitty.” Amy’s choices are awkward and amateurish even by nursery rhyme performance standards.

Tinfoil hat off, I think the Big Bang players sang carelessly ambiguous melodies because they were careless and ambiguous. And also, I think the lawsuit was dropped, thrown out, whatever. Still, I’m amused at the mere thought of Big Bang Theory intentionally singing various melodies and goofing up the chords. If out of righteous indignation or guilt, someone wanted to beef up their “independent creation” argument, it would be an interesting ploy. Ultimately however…

Yeah, Mom sang the 1930’s (then younger) version. It’s right there in the time capsule. So really Occam’s razor says all we should really think is that Sheldon and the rest just can’t sing.

Written by Brian McBrearty