March 5, 2024 Musicology No Comments

“Mr. Musicologist, you’ve got to be kidding,” you say. Yeah, I reckon I must. (Chill out, BeyHiv!) So why is TikTok obsessed with the similarities between Beyonce’s new song and Franklin’s Theme Song? Franklin, the turtle. “Hey, it’s Franklin.” Yep, that one.

First, for anyone who’s been under a rock, the first couple of singles from Beyonce’s upcoming new album have been out since around Valentine’s Day”.

We’re here because of this one, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” currently the number-one song in the country, and three weeks running atop Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart, making Beyonce the first black woman to hold that top slot. Here’s “Texas Hold ‘Em.”

“Texas Hold ‘Em” is drawing comparisons, believe it or not, to the “Franklin Theme Song.” Yes, Franklin the turtle. Y’know, “Hey, it’s Franklin.”

Hear it? You’re not alone. There are TikTok’s with hundreds of thousands of views devoted to the similarity. This one has over a million!


Replying to @Roxy The RESEMBLANCE – So much nostalgia in one place #beyonce #funny #music #millenial #millenialsoftiktok

♬ original sound – Vicky Hernandez

And if you want more company, Google Home may be seeing some connections as well.

As someone who’s done a bunch of consulting for Google Home, I’m rather heartened that I couldn’t get it to repeat that behavior; an artificial intelligence hallucination perhaps.

Millions of TikTok viewers aren’t wrong; they do sound a bit alike, but in terms of copyright, what’s relevant here?

What would a forensic musicologist say, suspicious or harmless?

It’s not a close call at all. Sorry. It would be funny, but no. Franklin The Turtle should not be suing Beyoncé for copyright infringement. That said, let’s belabor this and see what’s interesting about it.

What’s the difference between sounding alike and plagiarism?

To begin with, I’m using the term “plagiarism” but plagiarism isn’t technically illegal, it’s more of a moral no-no. For similarity to be illegal, it needs to rise to the level of “copyright infringement,” which is different. And for that, there needs to be both actual copying and improper appropriation of someone else’s original expression. Here, a forensic musicologist would say, or at least should say, we certainly don’t have the latter, and there’s no compelling reason even to believe the former. I’ll get to why in a minute.

They do sound a lot alike, but that’s okay. In musicology, we recognize that two songs might share certain features, but not all song elements are protected by copyright. That’s a really good thing. Copyright seeks to enable creativity and allowing a monopoly on basic musical elements would do the opposite.

Look at WHY two songs sound alike. Not just “if.”

Beyonce is number one on Billboard’s country chart with “Texas Hold ‘Em,” so let’s ask, what especially makes this a country song? It’s a combination of things, obviously, but instrumentation is doing the heavy lifting here. “Texas Hold ‘Em” is filled with acoustic guitars and banjos employing idiomatic plucking and strumming figures, feet stomping, shakers shaking, and a little bit of violin. All that’s missing is a pedal steel guitar. These are some of the most familiar tonal colors of traditional country music. Interestingly, Beyonce has Rhiannon Giddens contributing a lot of that character. Giddens is known for her banjo and violin playing, and for presenting musical styles that owe a lot to their African American roots. How perfect is it that Beyonce has Giddens joining her on the record that’s topping the country charts?

TikTok viewers make a lot of good points!

Before anything else, Franklin’s Theme Song shares the same sort of orchestration, adding a twangy mouth harp. So the color palette at the basic level is very much the same. And then within that palette, the instruments are characterized by a common repertoire of techniques. The sound of a banjo is a function of the way it’s constructed, but the sound of banjo music is that plus the way the strings are played, and somewhat the history of the banjo as a live instrument before the time of recorded music. Banjo players develop a repertoire of strums, up-picking and down-picking styles, and ways to incorporate melody and bass notes. All of these conventions lead to our sense of what banjo playing sounds like. But the styles themselves are certainly not the stuff of copyright. We’re all allowed to play two and three-finger picking patterns, and bounce our thumbs back and forth Do and Sol (the first and fifth notes of the major scale) and have an open string ringing out repeatedly on one note while the notes around it change. These are what banjo players do and what banjo music often sounds like.

Then we have the limited and shared harmonic vocabulary. These songs are both in the key of D major and employ only the basic chords in that key, sitting contentedly on a plain old D major chord most of the time.

The key itself is not very important to me, but it is to TikTok. For a musicologist, key is something we filter out a lot of the time. This is because, a few esoteric arguments aside, “Hey it’s Franklin” would be the same song in any key, like a cheeseburger is a cheeseburger whether you serve it at 130 degrees or cold out of the fridge. Its integrity as a cheeseburger is a product of other elements, not temperature. But TikTok viewers, unless they’re music experts, have less of that filter. When two songs are played back to back and they happen to be in the same key, they’re going to sound a lot more alike at least at first, and especially to a non-musicologist’s ears. There’s nothing jarring when you transition from Texas Hold ‘Em to Franklin and back.

Then you might notice the particular notes being plucked, especially at first. Both are playing figures that feature D on the upbeats. There’s nothing much more straightforward than that, but even though the figures are pretty different, that D on the upbeats gives both figures a common drive, like a knee-slap that plays the upbeats against a foot stomp on the downbeats. (The downbeats are the ones where you might count 1-2-3-4, and the upbeats are where you might count “and” in between the numbers.)

It’s also true that as you’re listening to either of these songs, you could probably sing either of the melodies along with the accompaniment of the other. Both songs are pretty much strumming and picking and stomping along on a D major chord. Such a simple accompaniment would accommodate an endless variety of melodies sung to it. Situations like this make for really easy mashups.

That’s why lyrics and melodies are often the first place I look for more substantial similarities. We are getting to why I said this isn’t at all close to being an infringement.

Here, the lyrics are very obviously not at all similar. Moving on…

Melodically? It’s not quite nothing, but nearly nothing. The melodic vocabulary is mostly limited and shared as well. You need just three note pitches to sing “This ain’t Texas, Aint No Hold ‘Em.” and “Hey, it’s Franklin. Coming to your house.” You might be surprised however to learn that even though these two songs are in the same key of D major, the two melodies practically NEVER sing the same notes at the same time. A musicologist looking for strings of notes, durations, and rhythmic placements in common will not find them. Imagine me writing out the two melodies on vellum and holding them up to the light. They will intertwine much more than they overlap. And over very simple but pretty different chord schemes, these two songs have very simple and pretty different melodies.

It often comes to that sort of consideration: Simplicity is somewhat in a ratio to similarity when you’re looking for evidence of copying. It would be reasonable to say, “The greater the simplicity of the compositional elements, the greater degree of similarity we might demand before we consider it conspicuous.

Here we have great simplicity and not very precise similarity.

Everything these songs do have in common they also share with a gazillion other songs. Are any of them more fun to juxtapose than these two? Probably not. I might even mash them up myself just to illustrate that they intertwine more than they overlap. Mashups can certainly indicate a degree of compatibility between two songs, they’re not a reliable illustration or indication of substantial similarity.

And while this was fun, the creator and singer of “Hey, It’s Franklin” is perfectly reasonable about this. An accomplished artist and songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, put out this statement through Eric Alper:

Written by Brian McBrearty