November 4, 2022 Musicology No Comments

Remember when Disney got sued because “Let It Go” might have sounded too much like “Volar?” No, me neither, but here we go again. Earlier this week, Daniel E. Grigson, filed a complaint in a Los Angeles court, claiming that “Some Things Never Change” from Disney’s Frozen 2 (it’s linked below) infringes upon his song “That Girl,” (it’s linked below also) which he wrote and published under his own label about 20 years ago. Grigson’s claims that he heard the similarity while attending the movie back in 2019 and “… involuntarily stood straight up, turned to look at his wife, and then at his kids, his eyes wide open as saucers. The close similarity to his own work “That Girl” was so striking to him that it caught him off guard, the beat, rhythm, feel, theme, words. He sat back down with his head in his hands. His 11-year-old daughter leaned over to him and said “Dad, Disney took your song.”

Yes, that whole scene is spelled out in the actual complaint. And it’s a little dramatic perhaps, but honestly, my first response is sympathy. It’s a lousy feeling when you think you’ve been taken advantage of. And if his daughter really did say that, I hope she was beaming with pride at the idea and not upset by it. I’m a Dad.

Here are the two songs if you’d care to try to hear what Mr. Grigson hears:

The plaintiff evidently went back and took a good look at the two works and then consulted a musicologist who seems to have validated his concerns. So here we are. And yes, I can hear what I imagine he found striking in that movie theater. There are clear similarities. Are they especially striking to me? Not really. “That Girl” and “Some Things Never Change” are not similar in any way that would lead me to infer Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who wrote “Let It Go,” and “Do You Wanna Build A Snowman” for the first Frozen movie, must have had access to and heard the plaintiff’s song before writing theirs. But let’s look at the claims in the complaint and see if we can be persuaded.

Fortunately for us, the complaint is pretty detailed. It doesn’t always happen that complaints include a lot of specific musicological claims, but this one does; several pages of them.

The complaint claims similarity in “melodies and melodic structure; musical forms and musical gestures; rhythm sections parts; tempos; chord progressions; cadences at the end of the choruses; lyrics; and arrangements and lyrical structures.” Pretty standard procedure.

One Claim At A Time, beginning with the basics.

For starters, are the tempos of both songs “identical” and 92 BPM (beats per minute) as the complaint says?

Nope, they are neither. We’re off to a rip-roaring start. “Some Things Never Change” has a tempo of 90 BPM, and “That Girl” kinda drifts around between 91-94 or so. Nothing wrong with drifting; recordings don’t always involve a metronome or click track. I would say “That Girl” is mostly 92 BPM or so, and a “drifting 92 or so” isn’t all that different from a BPM of 90. But no, they’re not “identical.” And therefore, it’s hard to fathom this separate claim/tale, “Comparing corresponding clips from the two songs compiled by GRIGSON, the tempo and rhythm are so similar they kept time and rhythm without alterations.” When I put these two songs up at the same time, their time and rhythm drift unpleasantly out of sync in just a couple of seconds. The two songs share similarly moderate tempos of around 90, along with countless other songs. So this is not very interesting.

As to “similar forms,” song form in popular music centers around familiar terms like intros, verses, chorus, and bridges. And indeed, these two songs do present their sections in the same order. They both begin with an intro, then they sing a verse, then a chorus, then another verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, and they wrap it up with an “outro” section (that’s a wordplay, the opposite of “intro”) Using common shorthand now, these are both “ABABCB” forms, where A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is the bridge. The thing is, “ABABCB” might be the most common form there is. So while the observation is valid, it’s not especially significant.

Notes are more the nitty gritty.

Following along, the complaint looks at harmonic similarity next. Here again, I get stuck on some details. They explain that as an initial step, “Some Things Never Change” was “transposed from C Major to G Major,” to match the key of G major that “That Girl” is performed in. Transposition into a common key is standard methodology. It makes the comparisons easier and helps the musicologist show and explain the findings to others. But “Some Things Never Change” is not in C major to start with; it’s in F major. It actually modulates up to G major in the last minute or so, but it’s never in C major. This also means I have to pause at the claim that Grigson transposed “That Girl” down “2 steps” to match the keys for his own analysis since transposing two steps down would actually put his “That Girl” into the not-helpful key of Eb major.

But while it’s a little disconcerting to be spending time on matters that really should just be facts, none of these gotchas make the harmony any more or less similar. So lets say both works are in the key of G and we can look at something that does matter, the chord progressions. Chord progressions are famously not usually protectable because there are only so many to go around. But harmony gives context and meaning to melody, so harmony matters a lot. Is it true that the respective four-chord progressions in the first four bars of these choruses are “very similar” even while the second of the four chords are not identical; Em in one case, and Am in the other?

The chords in the chorus to That Girl are (although it varies a little across the several choruses in the song):

|| G Em | C D | G Em | C ||

(Those vertical lines are bar lines by the way; they occur every four beats.”

And “Some Things Never Change” is:

|| G Am9 | C D | G Am9 | C D | Em C | G C/E Bb Bb/D | D7sus ||

So if you look at the first six or seven chords, you can see what they’re saying. But this is only about nine seconds of music, a fairly brief and not identical progression. And I’d argue that those A minors and E minors are the chords that give these two very common progressions most of what modest character they possess. Often, two different chord progressions might contain two chords that are different in name, as here, but relatively similar in harmonic function. And here, the complaint tries to argue they exhibit similar harmonic movement and background for their melodies, but I disagree. I think those two different chords have a lot of impact and are quite different sounding.

Let’s see what you think. Here are eight bars: two bars of the progression from Some Things Never Change, then two from That Girl, then the first one again, then the second one again.

I intentionally presented them in a very charitable light. Do they sound different to you or pretty much the same?

They are as different for example as the progressions in “All I Have To Do Is Dream, ” and “Love Is All Around.” (The same two progressions as our two songs, and yes, Love Is All Around is the song from “Love Actually.”)

These progressions are very common, especially the one in That Girl. It’s the main progression in Stay which is most familiar to me as the thing Jackson Browne sings after LoadOut, but is actually by Maurice Williams; Please Mr Postman, Stand By Me, This Magic Moment, we could go on and on. It’s what 50% of the piano renditions of “Heart and Soul” are made of.

Then after those three bars, “Some Things Never Change” has half its chorus (dissimilar material) still ahead of it. And before we get off the background harmonies, the very next claim is that in ‘That Girl’ the “final chord in the phrase appears as C/D and sometimes D,” and that in the Frozen song, “it is D7sus.” And “although the chords are different, they are both variations on a D chord and serve the function of a “5 Chord.” This is that “cadences at the end of the choruses” supposed similarity.

No. “That Girl’s” final chord actually appears as C, and sometimes as A minor, but never as either of the chords they claim, and these chords function, not as a 5 chord similar to the one in “Frozen,” but as a 4 chord, their own thing. So apart from their both having a long held cliffhanger chord before the chorus wraps up, which is a very common device, the cadences are different. Also, it’s the same device they used in Do You Want To Build A Snowman when Anna sings “I wish you would tell me WHY.”

Before we entertain the ideas expressed around similarities in melody or at least melodic arc, can we touch upon the lyrics? “Some Things Never Change” by itself is not an original lyric. A quick search on Lyrics.com tells me it will appear in 183 other lyrics. And “Some People Never Change,” has 12 matches of its own. And they’re colloquially different; opposites in some ways! “Some Things Never Change” is used here to be assuring whereas “Some People Never Change” is more of a resigned condemnation.

Melodically, the complaint focuses on those same two bars that contain those somewhat similar but very common chords, and sees those two lyrical phrases and points out eight similarities, four in the first bar, four in the second. I’ll write them out when I have a sec. See if you can follow this for now:

The very most basic means of comparing melodies is what you would expect. I look for same pitches appearing at same time (rhythmic placement), and held for the same durations. And then for a copying argument to be strong, I look for conspicuous strings of these, unlikely to have occurred by coincidence. The facts are, the lyric we’re focused on occurs in just the first of those two measures. Syllable by syllable, “Some” is the same pitch, but is different in duration and rhythmic placement. Next, whether we’re singing “Things” or either syllable of “People” we’re on different pitches. Ne-ver are never on the same pitch, but are rhymically the same in placement and duration. And “Change” is a different note as well, but occurs at the same rhythmic placement and a different duration.

Not to say that lining stuff up is the whole ballgame, but if you do line up the syllables that make up these two phrases, there is just ONE syllable, “Some,” where you’d sing the same syllable on the same pitch. Remember what I said earlier, about how harmony gives context and meaning to melody? Here, across those syllables, the chords are G to Em in one song and G to Am in the other. Half the same. Another angle, the melody from That Girl contains 9 notes. How many times if played together would both melodies be on the same pitch at the same time? Three. And for how long, in total? One quarter-note’s duration. Oh, and of those three, two occur after the word “change” has already happened, as “That Girl” is leading into its next phrase. And NONE of the three are notes occuring at the same time. None. They occur because “Some Things Never Change” contains longer duration notes, and at three moments, That Girl slides momentarily into unison with them.

One last indulgence. In the next measure, the second of these two from the chorus, there is just one note in the whole measure that occurs on the same pitch at the same time. So that makes two in total for the entire two-measure example. “That Girl” in these two measures contains seventeen notes. Two, the same. However, they depict the last four notes of “Some Things Never Change” as an “inversion” of the last four in “That Girl.” So whats an inversion? “Melodic inversion” is where you take a melody that for example starts on C, moves UP a diatonic step to D, then down three diatonic steps to A, and then, because you’ve perhaps been taught in your 20th century composition class at conservatory that inversion is cool, you write a sort of reverse of that, beginning perhaps but not necessarily again on C, then DOWN a diatonic step to B, and then UP three diatonic steps to E. You’re writing melodies that move by the same intervals as before, in the opposite direction as before. If I found a melody a dozen notes long and then another melody in the next measure or a corresponding measure later on that was a perfect retrograde inversion of those twelve notes? I’d surmise the composer employed that technique.

Should we infer that they’d like us to believe Lopez and Anderson-Lopez took the four notes from That Girl, B down one to A, down one to G, down three to D, and inverted them, G up one to A up one to B up two to D. Wait, that should’ve been up three to E. I guess it only explains the first three.

I’ll say it this way. It’s “Mi down to Re down to Do down to Sol” and “Do up to Re up to Mi up to Sol.” Do those sound at all the same? No.

I could keep going, there are a few pages of observations left, but that last one wore my patience. It’s not that the observation is invalid, inversion is a thing. It’s all over the place in classical music. In Jazz you’re taught to do it when you’re stretching material. In serial music it’s rudimentary. But is it the best explanation of how one song goes DO RE MI and another goes MI RE DO? No. To me, that’s determined grasping.

Ed Sheeran is right when he says there are too many cases like this out there. That’s not Mr. Grigson’s fault, nor his burden, and he’s entitled to his opinion. And I remain sympathetic. But it’s very wrong in my opinion to believe that given the forgoing, the similarities in the songs are so striking that they can only be explained by copying, but that’s what this and every case like this would like us to believe. No, I think they’re far more readily explained as coincidences.

Written by Brian McBrearty