May 12, 2019 Musicology 2 Comments

Well, it’s not completely ridiculous.

“I Don’t Care” is Justin Beiber and Ed Sheeran’s brand new single (as I type this, it came out yesterday.) I’d be hard pressed to think of another combo more certain to reach #1 as fast as Billboard can refresh? So everyone has heard the hell out of this track already. And already social media is lit up with slews of Cheryl Cole fans posting, “That chorus sounds just like…

It sounds just like another song called, “I Don’t Care.” So getting right to it, here are both for your consideration.

What’s going on here mostly is that Bieber and Sheeran sing the three words “I Don’t Care” over pretty much the same pitches as Cheryl Cole does in her own “I Don’t Care.” And by “pretty much” I mean identical, except that her “care” glides from C# down to A#, and theirs stays up on C#. Rhythmically the same; lyrically obviously the same.

It’s also similar in a structural way. If you begin a lyric with, “I don’t care,” the way both of these do is bound to then follow with a line or two about which you don’t care, and a melody and shape that goes along with your grooves. That part kinda writes itself, particularly I’d say if you’re Ed Sheeran.

But these two grooves are different; both of them upbeat, but they’re not the same. The chord progressions too are different. Not wildly different because, again, Sheeran’s derivative, accessible, and catchy limitations. Sheeran and Bieber are playing the same four chords over and over for the entire song. And they’re the same four chords you played if you ever learned Heart and Soul on an piano. Or a zillion other songs. Might be the most familiar chord progression of all time.

Cole’s “I Don’t Care” employs its own four-chord progression over and over. And three of those four chords are the same ones the gentlemen used but can it matter when their four are the most familiar progression of all time?

The other thing is the way they both end their phrases on the tonic chord. On paper, there’s nothing novel about ending on the tonic; quite the contrary. But the way both of these tracks do it — an extended cadence that’s a bit like killing time in the song — it’s interestingly similar tactically. That’s where Bieber and Sheeran do that falsetto staccato cooing, “ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!” and where Cole, at the endings to each half of her choruses restates, “(but) I don’t care.”

Usually, I barely consider key centers. When I do an analysis, step one is generally to transpose one or both songs, getting them into the same key for better comparison. But what’s really weird is that they’re both in F# Major! The chances of that? They’re not huge and it’s a real gift to mashup types on the internet; we can probably already find these two songs layered atop one another on youtube.

So, is Sheeran gonna get sued yet again? I’d have to say, yeah.

But did he lift the song? I doubt it. I think this is just a consequence of who he is, what he’s influenced by and how he writes. But that’s not mine to say, certainly not in a legal sense. What’s mine to say is, “are they significantly similar?” It’s far from ridiculous.

Written by Brian McBrearty