On Musical Kleptomania

The pop world has exploded. At least, if you’re a 13-year old girl who likes the music of Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles.

You see, Perry has just released a new song called ‘Roar,’ which some musical aficionados, as well as some tablodish websites, have noticed sounds a little like Bareilles’ ‘Brave’.

Oh… My… God.

Someone decided to copy someone else. And if you don’t think the two songs sound that similar, listen to this rather convincing layering* of the two songs by PopCultureBrain.

So Katy Perry, who I believe liked Sara Bareilles’ original song, has written one which sounds like the two could be played together all the time.

Maybe it’s just Perry providing the writers of Glee with a new song they can really do as a mashup without any hard arranging, but I digress.

You’ll notice the title of this post is On Musical Kleptomania. That’s because regardless of this particular situation, musicians have been copying each others’ ideas for centuries. It isn’t just a new pop sensation.

Music, after all, is a culturally-driven craft or art form, like painting. If person does something which works really well — like developing a new way of painting a tree — person B is likely to copy that same style

The same is true of music. If someone invents a new style, melody or chord progression, someone else comes along and copies, or at least pastiches, the same successful style.

So now you’re wanting proof?

As a music graduate (yah, didn’t know that, did you?) I could choose any number of examples from millennia of music. Every composer from the ancient greeks to the latest pop stars has taken a tune they liked, tweaked it, and made it their own. Sometimes publicly, sometimes not so much.

Stravinsky, as well as being the musical genius whose premiere of The Rite of Spring caused riots at its Paris debut, was also a known musical kleptomaniac. Towards the end of the nineteen-teens, Stravinsky used a whole ream of musical examples from other composers in his Soldier’s Tale, as well as some of his later works.**

Another person known for their musical kleptomania is George Frederic Handel. He often reused musical tunes from other composers, taking melodies from other works and working them into his own compositions. (Even if you’re not a musician, that last link should give you examples you can easily identify as identical.)

Moving on.  If you’ve ever heard If I Had Words by Jonathan Hodge (sung by Scott Fitzgerald and Yvonne Keeley in 1977) then you’ve also heard the theme of the Maestoso from the second movement of Saint Saëns third concerto — often known as the Organ Concerto. Hodge pinched Saint Saëans’ famous tune, and made it his own for this 70s’ hit.***

Then there’s the Chopin prelude which found its way into Barry Manilow’s hit Could It Be Magic?… the list goes on and on and on.

And that’s long before we even examine composers like Haydn and Mozart — and composers even further back in history — who willingly reused their own tunes again and again in new compositions to keep wealthy patrons happy by using their favourite tunes in new works.

What am I saying? Borrowing other people’s tunes — even repurposing your own — isn’t a new trend. It’s been going on for years and years.

Besides, some of history’s greatest songs — and pieces — have been stolen from other musicians.

* It’s worth noting at that some people are calling this a mashup, but actually, I think mashup isn’t quite the right term. I prefer my mashups to actually be mashups, rather than two songs layered on top of one another.
**The actual list of pieces Stravinsky ‘borrowed’ other composer’s tunes from is expansive. I don’t think we’ll ever truly know how many tunes he picked up, magpie style, from other sources and wove into his music.
***It also made an appearance in the film Babe: Sheep Pig, itself a shameful adaptation of Dick King Smith’s excellent book The Sheep Pig. You should read it to your kids if you have some, as it’s far better than the film.