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.

Continue reading

Why has the human brain evolved so much more than any other animals?

The human brain isn’t “more” evolved. It’s just differently evolved. Our intelligence has its obvious advantages, but it carries some significant costs. Like Joshua Engel says, the big brain is metabolically expensive. It makes childbirth much harder for humans than for other mammals, too. Human babies have to be effectively born prematurely in order to fit the big head through the birth canal, and even so, it takes years for the brain to develop to the point where a person can function on the most basic level. Other mammals are up and walking in a matter of hours, and are ready to fend for themselves after a few weeks.

Continue reading

What goes on neurologically when a song gets stuck in your head?

The phenomenon of annoyingly persistent earworms is a great introduction to the meme theory: the idea that songs (and all other forms of cultural expression) are self-replicating informational “viruses” that use the mind as their host, the way DNA viruses use living cells and software viruses use computers. The best overview of this theory is Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine.

Continue reading

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

Continue reading

The natural history of the Funky Drummer break

“The Funky Drummer Parts One And Two” by James Brown and the JBs is one of the most-sampled recordings in history.

“The Funky Drummer” is a cornerstone of hip-hop and other sample-based electronic music, but for the first decade after its release it was an obscure tune. It’s a nice groove, but as a song, it’s not as catchy as James Brown’s big hits like “Sex Machine” or “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag.” It doesn’t have verses or choruses; instead, it’s just an open-ended groove, with extended solos traded back and forth between James Brown himself on organ and Maceo Parker on tenor sax.

It’s a mother

Four and a half minutes into the recording, James Brown tells the band: “Fellas, one more time I want to give the drummer some of this funky soul we got going here.” He tells drummer Clyde Stubblefield, “You don’t have to do no soloing, brother, just keep what you got… Don’t turn it loose, ’cause it’s a mother.” That last word will turn out to be prophetic.

Here’s a loop of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum solo:

Continue reading

No one has ever written an original song

Sampling, remixing and mashups make some people angry. A lot of people think that repurposing existing ideas is bad, that it’s lazy, or a form of stealing. We value originality highly. Should we? My own experience of music making is that there are no original ideas. There are novel combinations of old ideas, but it’s neither possible nor desirable to make a genuinely new and unprecedented piece of music. If you want to hear truly original music, bang randomly on a piano keyboard. You’ll be playing something new and unprecedented, but it probably won’t be something you’d want to hear twice.

Continue reading