July 31, 2021 Musicology 1 Comment

TMZ reports there’s a lawsuit out there today because a couple of songwriters heard Jake Owens’s “Made For You” and its “Do, Mi, Re… Do” melody along with the lyric, “I was made for you.” They rightly thought it was very similar to the cadence in their own “Made For You” song. And THEN they thought, “Jake Owen must’ve gotten that from us! How else could this be?!”

And today’s Saturday, but Jake Owens is a big star so I know there will be a bit of noise about this and I’ll get a few inquiries, so let me just quickly point where this is going.

Owen isn’t the only, nor the first, and he won’t be the last to write a “Made For You,” song. It’s an idea that countless songwriters have and will write about. And that’s fine. Copyright doesn’t protect ideas, only the way ideas are expressed. Did Owen copy the way the idea was expressed? I don’t know. We’ll likely never know. But the question is, as always, does the music direct us to believe he did? And I’ve only listened once, so we’re kinda doing this together.

Let’s hear what they heard. Here’s Alexander Cardinale and Morgan Reid‘s track:

And here’s Jake Owens hit “Made For You.”

Plain as day. Maybe there are structural things, some overall tone, and some instrumental similarities, but in terms of melody and lyrics which are paramount, it’s mostly just that last line, “I was made for you.” Sameness; same notes, same words. No question.

According to the TMZ article, their claim is that the “notes, structure, harmony, vocal style and rhythm are clear indicators” that Owens copied their track.

And “clear indicators” of copying is exactly what I’m listening for, but at first blush, I’m not finding them. “Clear indicator” is a fairly high bar, often referred to as “substantial” or “significant” similarity. Not all similarity is significant. So while some similarity here is obvious, “obviousness” is not the question. The relevant questions instead are, “Do we infer from the notes that these similarities exist because it was probably copied? And how else might he have arrived at a song with similarities, arguably, in “notes, structure, harmony, vocal style and rhythm,” and has those same five words as the cadential hook?” And the answer is, although it would take more time than I have to really explain it, “could’ve happened lots of ways!” Did it?

Is “a coincidence” the best answer?

Again, today is Saturday and I’ve got things to do. I’ll try to find time soon and give this a proper look. For now, here’s how you might think about it, somewhat in a nutshell:

First, this is true of both songs: the whole concept is adorable, charming, and completely cliché; timeless sentiments expressed, importantly, through well-worn musical devices. “Originality” scores for both songs, if there were such a score, would be very low.

Apart from those five words and the literally just DO, RE and MI notes they’re sung to, the rest of the tune, let’s just guestimate 95% of it, is pretty dissimilar. I hear things here and there, but we’re really looking for them aren’t we? That’s a certain amount of confirmation bias. And all the confirmation bias in the world can’t excuse a different overall finding around notes, structure, harmony, vocal style, and rhythm. The similarities are there, but they lack density. These two songs are mostly dissimilar except in their shared banality. Banality feeds into a coincidence rationale to some degree.

And the five syllables that are obviously pretty similar? Indeed they are, but it’s a short phrase, shared by countless songs, and it’s NOT identical. It’s close, yes, but it’s not identical. Why split hairs? Because we’re trying to assess probability. The shorter and more well-worn the material, the higher the appropriate threshold for conspicuous similarity. It’s simple: if you had two notes and two words the same? That happens all the time. Twenty such notes in a row? Much less likely to be a coincidence obviously. Five notes? Well, this is where you ask, “how unique, novel, original, is the material, and precisely how identical are the sections of the works over the course of the work?”

I promised you a nutshell. So here’s that. Give me a few hours, and I’ll bet I could identify ten songs that are equally relatable to one or both of these “Made For You’s.” So Owen could’ve gotten the idea from anywhere or nowhere. Simple lyrical idea, short phrase, short common melodic cadence, gonna pop into songwriters’ heads by and by. That’s the essence of a coincidence for our purposes.

I may change my mind when I get in deeper. And then even if I do decide the notes point to probable copying, consciously or unconsciously, the next question, believe it or not, is “so what?” And that’s a whole other discussion.

So I can and may come back and overcomplicate this for you. But for the last time, it’s Saturday. And maybe I’m just Saturday lazy, but really I don’t find this one terribly interesting.

Written by Brian McBrearty