Originality in Digital Music

This post is longer and more formal than usual because it was my term paper for a class in the NYU Music Technology Program.

Questions of authorship, ownership and originality surround all forms of music (and, indeed, all creative undertakings.) Nowhere are these questions more acute or more challenging than in digital music, where it is effortless and commonplace to exactly reproduce sonic elements generated by others. Sometimes this copying is relatively uncontroversial, as when a producer uses royalty-free factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live. Sometimes the copying is legally permissible but artistically dubious, as when one downloads a public-domain Bach or Scott Joplin MIDI file and copies and pastes sections from them into a new composition. Sometimes one may have creative approval but no legal sanction; within the hip-hop community, creative repurposing of copyrighted commercial recordings is a cornerstone of the art form, and the best crate-diggers are revered figures.

Even in purely noncommercial settings untouched by copyright law, issues of authorship and originality continue to vex us. Some electronic musicians feel the need to generate all of their sounds from scratch, out of a sense that using samples is cheating or lazy. Others freely use samples, presets and factory sounds for reasons of expediency, but feel guilt and a weakened sense of authorship. Some electronic musicians view it as a necessity to create their tools from scratch, be they hardware or software. Others feel comfortable using off-the-shelf products but try to avoid common riffs, rhythmic patterns, chord progressions and timbres. Still others gleefully and willfully appropriate and put their “theft” of familiar recordings front and center.

Is a mashup of two pre-existing recordings original? Is a new song based on a sample of an old one original? What about a new song using factory sounds from Reason or Ableton Live? Is a DJ set consisting entirely of other people’s recordings original? Can a bright-line standard for originality or authenticity even exist in the digital realm?

I intend to parse out our varied and conflicting notions of originality, ownership and authorship as they pertain to electronic music. I will examine perspectives from musicians and fans, jurists and journalists, copyright holders and copyright violators. In so doing, I will advance the thesis that complete originality is neither possible nor desirable, in digital music or elsewhere, and that the spread of digital copying and manipulation has done us a service by bringing the issue into stark relief.

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Round Midnight

Thelonious Monk’s beautiful ballad “Round Midnight” is said to be the most widely recorded and performed jazz tune — that is, a tune that was written specifically for jazz, not an adaptation of a showtune or pop song. It’s a testament to its popularity that it’s one of exactly two songs that Dave Chappelle knows how to play on the piano. There are a couple of scenes in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party that show him noodling around it. He talks in this clip about what Monk’s music means to him as a comedian — it’s all about timing.

Carmen McRae was a good friend of Monk’s, and for my tastes, she sings this song better than anyone. Her tart, unsentimental intellect matches Monk’s own approach to music perfectly. Here she is performing “Round Midnight” in 1962.

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How does jazz work?

Related: my top 100 jazz tracks.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of explaining how everything in jazz works, I’m going to pick a specific, fairly mainstream tune and talk you through it: “Someday My Prince Will Come” by Miles Davis, off the 1961 album by the same name.

First of all, here’s the original version from Snow White.

Once you’ve got the tune in your head, listen to the Miles Davis recording.

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The best jazz versions of classical pieces

For my tastes, you can’t beat the Ellington Nutcracker.

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Ellington’s Peer Gynt suite is also pretty wonderful.

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This one has inspired some remixing from me.

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What are the greatest basslines ever?

The bassline is neglected by most non-musicians. But if you want to write or produce music, you quickly find out how important it is. The bassline is the foundation of the whole musical structure, both rhythmically and harmonically. The best basslines interlock with the drums and other rhythm instruments to propel the groove, without you necessarily even noticing them. I like the complex walking lines in jazz and melodic lines in highbrow rock, but the ones that really hit me where I live are basic riffs that loop and loop until they lift you into an ecstatic trance.

Here are my favorite basslines of the last fifty years, across genres.

John Coltrane – “My Favorite Things”

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Simple, hypnotic, effective. Read more.

John Coltrane – “Equinox”

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Another devastatingly simple groove.

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Samples and community

The defining musical experience of my lifetime is hearing familiar samples in unfamiliar contexts. For me, the experience is usually a thrill. For a lot of people, the experience makes them angry. Using recognizable samples necessarily means having an emotional conversation with everyone who already has an attachment to the original recording. Music is about connecting with other people. Sampling, like its predecessors quoting and referencing, is a powerful connection method.

Run-DMC sample map

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