In praise of copying

We conventionally place a high value on originality in music. But it’s been my experience that the desire for originality gets in the way of making music that’s actually good. The closer you are to your influences, the more definite and truthful your work is. The key to quality music is to blend together an interesting set of influences that you understand inside and out.

Music evolves in much the same way life does. DNA gets copied when cells divide and replicate. Music gets copied from mind to mind when people hear it and want to reproduce it. All musical learning begins with imitation of other musicians. I’d go so far as to say that all learning boils down to imitation. Primates and other smarter animals learn by imitation too.

As music gets copied from one person’s mind to another, it sometimes mutates. Think of learning an existing piece of music as being like asexual reproduction. Usually the two child cells are exact clones of the parent cell. Mutations are errors that result in inexact copies. Usually mutations harm the child cells’ ability to survive and reproduce, but every once in a while the mutation is advantageous.


Imagine that you know how to sing “Amazing Grace” and that I want to learn it. Say we can’t read music and don’t have any recordings. You’ll repeat the song to me until I can successfully copy it by imitation. Maybe I won’t quite nail the melody completely, and will remember it with one or two notes changed. This mutation will probably make my version of “Amazing Grace” less compelling and memorable, and other people will be less interested in learning it from me. But maybe I’ll have stumbled on an improvement. My version might even spread and eventually crowd out the original.

Musical imitation doesn’t just have to happen at the scale of entire songs. It can happen at smaller scales, at the level of riffs and chord progressions and rhythmic motifs. This kind of modular recombination is especially common in improvisation-based music. When someone combines so many small pieces of existing tunes into a hybrid that bears little obvious resemblance to any of the source material, we call the process “composing” or “songwriting.” Writing music is closer to hybridizing and selective breeding than creating a new lifeform from scratch.

The evolutionary view of music creation has practical benefits. If you want to arrive at the best new ideas efficiently, the best method is to have a lot of ideas compete for your attention. Most new mutations and hybrids will fail, but if you throw enough combinations of musical DNA together, eventually you’re bound to get lucky with something that survives, thrives and spreads itself. Shorter generation times speed up evolution — the more copying and breeding you do, the more chances there are for fruitful errors.

This is why Michael Jackson recorded hundreds of demo songs for Thriller. He wanted an album where every song was good enough to be a single, and knew that would only be possible if he had many albums’ worth of material to choose from. This is also why Lil Wayne records new material just about seven days a week. On the flip side, I’ve known many lesser musicians who obsessively fiddle and tinker with the same ideas, year after year, missing out on the chance to work through broader sets of possibilities.

My view of the positive value of copying and imitation in music is directly at odds with copyright law. Our legal culture operates from the assumption that copying is evil, a crime in need of punishment. In his infamous ruling in the Biz Markie sampling case, Judge Kevin Duffy began his opinion by quoting the Bible: “Thou shalt not steal.” This culture is the result of judges and legislators not being familiar with how music actually gets made. Legal professionals have a lot of experience writing text, and so it’s not surprising that the laws around plagiarizing writing are much looser. The law grants wide latitude to quote, paraphrase and restate existing ideas in written form. Maybe if more judges were musicians, there would be wider freedom to perform these necessary acts in music as well.

I got some validation for my opinion from Marcus Boon’s new book, In Praise Of Copying. True to his message, he’s made the book available for free download in PDF format. Click the image to help yourself.

Boon’s book deals with the grating cognitive dissonance between our society’s outspoken ban on copying and the reality of doing any kind of creative or intellectual work.

[University students] are encouraged to learn through the act of repeating information, quoting, appending citations, in the traditional academic way; but with access to the Internet, to computers that can copy, replicate, and multiply text at extraordinary speed, they are also exhorted not to imitate too much, not to plagiarize, and to always acknowledge sources. They are ordered not to copy—but they are equally aware that they will be punished if they do not imitate the teacher enough!

Can we really identify an area of human activity outside copying which would make it possible for us to choose or decide whether to copy or not? I will argue that there is no such area, that we are always entangled in the dynamics of mimesis, and I write “in praise of copying” as an affirmation of copying rather than as an ethics.

We presuppose originality as the norm, and that copying deviates from that norm. The reality is the opposite — copying is normal, and ideas that are genuinely disconnected from what has come before are radically unusual. Truly novel ideas are easy to produce and are usually worthless. You can effortlessly create novel musical ideas by banging on a piano at random. To sound good, you have to stay close to the cliches.

Some classic songs based on obvious copying

The Beach Boys got the guitar riff in “Surfin’ USA” from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Chuck Berry got the opening riff of “Johnny B Goode” from “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman” by Louis Jordan. The Beatles admitted to learning the guitar riff in “I Feel Fine” from Bobby Parker’s 1960 song “Watch Your Step.” Led Zeppelin is famous (notorious?) for borrowing very heavily from American blues musicians, lifting riffs and lyrics freely. For instance, they adapted “When The Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie for their own song of the same name. Appropriately, the drum intro from Zep’s song has been sampled in uncountable hip-hop, techno and pop songs.

Michael Jackson was a brilliant synthesist of ideas appropriated from the world around him. He mostly drew from James Brown and Motown, but he wasn’t afraid to tie in rock and electronica and Afropop and hip-hop and much else. My favorite song of his, “Wanna Be Startin’ Something,” gets its climax from a Manu Dibango song. Michael told Darryl Hall during the “We Are The World” session that he had stolen the “Billie Jean” bassline from Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That.”

Darryl Hall isn’t too bitter; he says he stole the bassline too, though he didn’t specify where he got it from. The KLF observe that the Billie Jean riff is a widely used dance music trope, and I believe them, but unfortunately they don’t give specific examples either.

Michael Jackson, who we cited earlier on for not being that adept at coming up with the killer Number One hit choruses, CAN come up with the bass lines. “Billie Jean” was the turning point in Jackson’s career. That song, on his own admission, took him into the mega stratospheres where his myth now reigns. The fact is, “Billie Jean” would be nothing without that lynx-on-the-prowl bass line; but he wasn’t the first to use it. It had been featured in numerous dance tracks by various artists before him. Jackson and Quincy must have been hanging out around the pool table in their air conditioned dimmed light atmosphere, L.A. studio one evening wondering: “What next?” when one of them came up with the idea of using the old lynx- on-the-prowl standby. Without making that decision back in 1981 there would have been no Pepsi Cola sponsored jamboree in 1988.

Does this make the “Billie Jean” bassline less awesome? Or more awesome? I find that its status as a communal property gives it a web of associations that makes it a richer work of art.

Here’s a thorough listing of similar musical borrowings and appropriations (or, if you insist, thefts.)

Creativity never happens in a vacuum. The best ideas are synthesized from the half-formed thoughts floating around. The richer the biodiversity of the memepool, the more genius figures it cultivates. Brian Eno uses the term scenius to describe this collective evolution of ideas. Creators of sample-based music do us the favor of shining a bright light on the fallacy of originality. I hope the legal system catches up someday.