Accidental plagiarism in songwriting

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 229. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.



It’s a common feeling. You write a line and it immediately sounds just right. Timeless. Familiar. Almost… too familiar. You play the finished song to your mates and someone notices – you’ve copied someone else’s track. Gutted, you delete that great-sounding line and spend hours trying to write something that sounds as good.

This sort of accidental copying happens to every songwriter from time to time. Most of us just exhale sadly and hope wait for inspiration to flow again, following the tracks of our tears. But some take the darker path, keeping the copied section and hoping that no-one will notice. Leading us to the inevitable question: how much of someone else’s song can actually be copied?

The answer, frustratingly, is ‘none at all’. Contrary to popular myth, there is no maximum number of notes you can copy ‘legally’. If your song sounds recognisably like part of another song, and the other side can demonstrate in court that copying has occurred, you could end up owing someone a lot of money, or even lose ownership of your own work.

Documenting Collaborative Songwriting

Today I’m at the Royal Musical Association study day at the University of Oxford, presenting a paper about the methodological challenges of observing and analysing collaborative songwriters’ creativity. For the convenience of those who are there today I’ve pasted the references at the bottom of this post. An academic paper with more detail will be published soon in the Journal on the Art of Record Production (Issue 8, December 2013).


Documenting collaborative songwriters’ creativity using Linear Event Analysis

It is a little-known fact that almost half of the hit songs in the USA of the last 60 years were written by collaborative teams[1]. Songs acquire immense cultural and economic value, and good songwriters are celebrated in the music industry, but collaborative songwriting practices remain largely unexplored by popular musicology or cognitive psychology. Psychologist John Sloboda[2] identified the methodological challenges in understanding the creative mind of a composer, and concluded that the best way of acquiring evidence of compositional decision-making was real-time reporting of composing as it occurs. Such ‘verbal protocol analysis’ into composers’ creativity has been attempted by a small number of researchers (e.g. Collins[3]) but such methods are necessarily interventionist and therefore risk subjecting the composer to the observation effect. Collaborative songwriting is immanently communicative, so some of the methodology problems identified by Sloboda can be solved through ‘linear event analysis’ – i.e. audio recordings of the songwriting process. This evidence base can be triangulated with computer-assisted generation of iterative documentation such as ‘track changes’ lyric edits and ‘save as’ audio files. These evidence bases can then be compared with the finished product – the song itself – and tentative conclusions about authorial intent and processes can be drawn. In this paper the author will describe his emergent research into observation methodologies for popular songwriting, and outline the techniques and systems he has used to try to answer the question ‘what do collaborative songwriters do’ in a musically meaningful way.

Keywords: songwriting, popular musicology, music psychology, creativity studies.

[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] David Collins, “Real-time Tracking of the Creative Music Composition Process,” Digital Creativity 18, no. 4 (December 2007): 239–256, doi:10.1080/14626260701743234.


  • Bamberger, J., 2003. The Development of Intuitive Musical Understanding: A Natural Experiment. Psychology of Music, 31(1), pp.7–36.
  • Barnes, A., 2006. James Blunt goes to war with his mentor over royalties. The Independent on Sunday. Available at:
  • Bennett, Joe. Collaborative Songwriting – the Ontology of Negotiated Creativity in Popular Music Studio Practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production, 2011.  Available from
  • Bently, L., 2009. Authorship of Popular Music in UK Copyright Law. Information, Communication & Society, 12(2), pp.179–204.
  • Bugg, J., 2012. Jake Bugg interview: “I’ve achieved what I wanted to’ – Telegraph. Available at:
  • Cantor, J.S., 2006. Fearless Innovation–Songwriting for Our Lives: Inspiring Learners with Arts-Based Practices that Support Creativity. Multicultural Education, 14(2), pp.57–64.
  • Collins, D., 2007. Real-time tracking of the creative music composition process. Digital Creativity, 18(4), pp.239–256.
  • Demers, J., 2006. Steal This Music – how intellectual property law affects musical creativity. University of Georgia Press.
  • Hayden, S. & Windsor, L., 2007. Collaboration and the composer: case studies from the end of the 20th century. Tempo, 61(240), p.28.
  • Hewson, J., 2009. Songbook: James Blunt. Available at:
  • McIntyre, P., 2001. The Domain of Songwriters: Towards defining the term “Song.” Perfect Beat: The Pacific Journal of Research into Contemporary Music and Popular Culture, 5(3), pp.100–111.
  • Moore, A.F., 2012. Song means : analysing and interpreting recorded popular song. Ashgate.
  • Padgett, A., 2008. Rhetoric of Predictability: Reclaiming the Lay Ear in Music Copyright Infringement Litigation, The. Pierce L. Rev., 7, p.125.
  • Sloboda, J., 1985. The musical mind : the cognitive psychology of music, OUP.
  • Smart, G., 2007. Now Blunt goes back to war. The Sun. Available at:
  • Zollo, P., 1997. Songwriters on songwriting, Da Capo Press.

AABA song form songwriting lecture

This post is mainly for the Masters in Songwriting students I’m working with today at our Corsham Court Songwriters’ Centre, but might be of interest to songwriters generally (or to anyone considering applying for the course).

These are musical examples we’ll be discussing in the lecture/seminar. I’ve embedded the audio as YouTube clips for convenience.

Some further reading – John Covach on song form.

Allan Moore Song Means (Amazon link) – also in the BSU library and as a downloadable ebook.


What a beautiful combination


Quick quiz.

What do the following songs have in common?

The Beatles – You Never Give Me Your Money
Erasure – I Love To Hate You
Frank Sinatra (and others) – Fly Me To The Moon
Gloria Gaynor – I Will Survive
Train – 50 Way To Say Goodbye
Cat Stevens – Wild World

Type your comments here, or via Twitter/Facebook.

Will You Still Love [This Song] Tomorrow?

Last week I posted a research survey on this site to investigate the way listeners infer meaning from song arrangements. Thanks to all of the Facebook, blog and Twitter contacts who responded. Some of the respondents have asked me to publish the results, so here they are. The text below is part of a forthcoming research publication which should be available sometime in 2014.

Carole King in the studio


Song, Performance and Track – a listening experiment

Joe Bennett, 26 Sept 2013

It is self-evident, or perhaps a tautology, that an audio recording of a song carries cultural meaning for the listener, but to what extent does the listener infer meaning (from the track) that was not created by the songwriter? To borrow from Allan Moore’s terminology, to what extent is the track one of the ‘means by which songs can mean’[1]? To provide an objective/measurable example of the way ‘performance’ can create listener inferences I devised the following simple listening experiment, conducted using an online poll.[2] Participants were asked to select randomly one of two unidentified recordings ‘Song A’ and ‘Song B’ and listen to only one of them. ‘Song A’ was Carole King’s 1970 recording of the Goffin/King composition Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? ‘Song B’ was the Shirelles’ recording of the same song from 1960. Importantly, both recordings share the same melody and lyric as each other, with near-identical harmony, but are performed in different styles (‘singer-songwriter’ and ‘1960s girl band’ respectively) and at different tempi. Listeners were asked to speculate about inferred/imagined events – that is, to provide information about the characters and story that is not provided in the lyric.

Songwriting survey – your ears needed!

PianoI’m currently undertaking some research into inferences in song – the story, characters and images that listeners imagine when they hear a recording or performance. At the moment I’m collecting data about two well-known recordings (take the survey – you’ll find out what they are at the end) and I’m trying to get as many responses as possible. The survey will take around 5 minutes (including the time it takes to listen to the song!) and there are 8 questions.

So please forward this link to everyone you know – and don’t forget to take the survey yourself.

Take the survey

32 bar standards – Adorno was (almost) right

I’m currently working on materials for a lecture about AABA song form for the Masters degree in songwriting. It’s a lecture I give every year and it starts from an historical perspective – contextualising AABA as the most common song form during first half of the 20th century. The 32-bar ‘standard’ is a remarkable formula – it was the dominant form of popular music (in the USA and UK) for around 50 years, and it follows some very simple rules – each section is 8 bars long, and form is verse-verse-bridge-verse . (Sometimes the ‘song’ is referred to as a ‘chorus’ because of an extended – usually slower – intro leading into it). In a standard, the title usually appears at the start or end of each verse, and almost never in the bridge. Verse 1 introduces the lyric idea; verse 2 develops its narrative; the bridge comments on the theme from a different viewpoint; the final verse summarises the narrator’s view or otherwise concludes the narrative.

Just An Echo
Here’s an example of a 32 bar standard. I’ve chosen ‘Just An Echo’ (Harry M Woods, 1932) because it’s less well known than the usual examples (Somewhere Over The Rainbow, As Time Goes By etc), and it illustrates the form really well.

For an overview of AABA form see my 2011 article from Total Guitar magazine.

Writing in 1941, the musicologist and sociologist Theodor Adorno described the ‘standardisation’ of popular music and deconstructed the 32 bar standard – which was, at the time, the song form used by almost every contemporary hit. Adorno held some rather extreme views about popular music, and it’s a fairly common sport among contemporary popular musicology to attack his arguments as prejudiced and elitist (although some have attempted a more nuanced approach). But here’s the thing – Adorno’s analysis is musically accurate.

Standardization extends from the most general features to the most specific ones. Best known is the rule that the chorus consists of thirty two bars and that the range is limited to one octave and one note. The general types of hits are also standardized: not only the dance types, the rigidity of whose pattern is understood, but also the “characters” such as mother songs, home songs, nonsense or “novelty” songs, pseudo-nursery rhymes, laments for a lost girl. Most important of all, the harmonic cornerstones of each hit — the beginning and the end of each part — must beat out the standard scheme. (Adorno, 1941).

Where Adorno’s argument falls down is in his inferences; he assumes that because a popular song’s content may be partly predictable for the listener, this is a reason to contrast it with ‘serious’ music where listener expectations may be more challenged. Actually, he argues that  popular music’s ‘standardisation’ is not to be characterised by comparative simplicity. It’s hard to disagree with the following quotation on musical grounds;

The difference between the spheres cannot be adequately expressed in terms of complexity and simplicity. All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz. Melodically, the wide intervals of a good many hits such as “Deep Purple” or “Sunrise Serenade” are more difficult to follow per se than most melodies of, for example, Haydn, which consist mainly of circumscriptions of tonic triads and second steps. Harmonically, the supply of chords of the so-called classics is invariably more limited than that of any current Tin Pan Alley composer who draws from Debussy, Ravel, and even later sources. (Ibid).

Adorno had done his research about popular music, and it is inaccurate to say that he criticises it for its structural simplicity. The problem with his critique is that he wasn’t habituated in songs as a listener – or rather, [I infer that] he didn’t seem to derive personal emotional impact from them. Speaking personally, as a pop music consumer (and musicology geek), of course I recognise structural similarities between pop songs (here’s a brief analysis of 2012 hits). But as a listener I’m influenced by the differences between otherwise predictable musical content. These may well be, in Adorno’s terms, ‘conditioned reflexes’, but the skill of the songwriter, and the emotional power for the listener, is contained within the deviations from the predictable, not the predictable content itself. Standardisation in popular music is powerful and self-perpetuating, and here I agree with Adorno’s statement that ‘the standard patterns [of 1940s pop songs] have become invested with the immunity of bigness — “the King can do no wrong.”‘ – but this is just economic and cultural Darwinism in action (here’s a short article discussing the market forces that drive song standardisation; here’s a much longer academic one).

Because he was writing in the 1940s, Adorno did not differentiate between ‘song’ and ‘track’ because, as in classical music, the ‘work’ in popular music of the time was defined in sheet music form. In the early 20th century, the song was usually more famous than the singer. If he were writing now there would be a whole new landscape for him to discuss because late 20th century popular music is defined as an audio product, not a musicological one – the song is the recording. Listeners are responding simultaneously to the song and the track (that is, the production), so the bandwidth of information we receive is so much greater. ‘Serious’ music (or at least a proportion of it) uses a known timbral palette – a piano, or an orchestra for example – but popular music production allows pretty much any sound to be incorporated into the mix.

So I agree with Adorno musically and, mostly, economically; his descriptions of the 32 bar standard and the market forces that perpetuate it are well reasoned and IMO evidence based. But he applies a structural and sociological analysis to popular music that he refuses to apply to ‘serious’ music, even though  all music contains some constrained elements and some challenges to constraint. As listeners, we respond to the difference between constraint and freedom, repetition and contrast, form and content. All music is a balance between standardisation and innovation.


Daytime is over, night time is here
Church bells are ringing, mellow and clear
I feel so lonely, beneath stars above
Listening to one thing, the one thing I love
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you
Can you hear it, ooh-hoo!
Through the twilight, ooh-hoo!
When it answered I love you, I do
How I wish we were here
Just like we used to be
But since you have gone
There’s nothing left for me
Just an echo, ooh-hoo!
In the valley, ooh-hoo!
But it brings back sweet memories of you

Mona Lisa by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans – analysis of a co-write

The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming academic paper, the whole of which will be published in 2014. I’m researching the methods by which songwriting teams collaborate. In my analysis of the way Livingston and Evans wrote ‘Mona Lisa’ , I’m observing the various factors that influenced the writing and eventual musical/lyric content of the song. Words: Joe Bennett (c) 2013. 

Jay Livingston (seated) and Ray Evans

Jay Livingston and Ray Evans became a collaborative songwriting team in 1937 and enjoyed a 64 year creative partnership. They specialised in songs for films, and their work was recorded by many of the USA’s most successful singers, particularly in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, including Bob Hope, Debbie Reynolds, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day and Peggy Lee. Their hits include Que Sera, Sera, Buttons and Bows and Silver Bells.

Mona Lisa was written sometime in 1949, having been commissioned for the 1950 film that was eventually entitled Captain Carey, USA. Livingston describes the specifics of the commission, and alludes to the creative constraints that were imposed upon the song before it was written;

We had to write an Italian song. It was a picture called OSS, which was the CIA during World War II. Alan Ladd was in a little Italian town, and they wanted some way of warning him that the Nazis were coming with a patrol. He was there with a little radio and the partisans, and they [the film company] said, ‘Why doesn’t somebody play a song on an accordion, a street guy.’ He was blind but he could really see, and he’d start playing this song and that would warn Alan Ladd.
I started to write something kind of scary, but we thought ‘no, that’s going to warn the Germans.’ So we wrote ‘Mona Lisa.’[1]
…[the film studio] said that [the Mona Lisa melody] sounded Italian and they liked it.

Here, the constraints of the brief are imposed by the client, Paramount Pictures, who has pre-specified several characteristics for the song. It must ‘sound Italian’; it must be melodically strong, and implicitly recognisable after only a few accordion notes, given its intended role in the film’s plot. If it had broken any of these constraints the client would have exercised veto and either demanded a rewrite or commissioned a different songwriting team. These requisite musical characteristics were therefore imperatives for Livingston and Evans: they were economically forced to obey the specified constraints without which the song would not have been approved or released.

Melodically, Mona Lisa makes repeating use of a four-note melodic motif that can be heard sung as the title phrase from [0:19] on the 1950 Nat King Cole recording[2]. In the key of C major[3], the notes are G-Gb-A-G or sol-se-la-sol[4], usually played as four quavers[5]. In the song’s 20-bar structure, the four-syllable motif appears twice in bar 1, three times transposed in bar 5 (A-Ab-B-A / F-E-G-F / D-Db-E-D) over the vocal line ‘is it only / ‘cos you’re lonely’ / they have named you’), and twice at its original pitch in bar 9 (‘do you smile to / tempt a lover’). The four-syllable idea is reused further throughout the song even when the pitches are not derived from the underlying four-note pattern. In the lyric below I have underlined the phrases where the melody is prominently following a four-syllable phrase;

Mona Lisa / Mona Lisa / men have named you
You’re so like the / lady with the mystic smile
Is it only / ‘cause you’re lonely / they have blamed you?
For that Mona / Lisa strangeness / in your smile?
Do you smile to / tempt a lover / Mona Lisa?
Or is this your / way to hide a / broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely / lovely work of art?
Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa topline transcription, with four-syllable groups highlighted

The song clearly owes a lot of its melodic content to a four-syllable rhythmic motif, and combining Livingston’s testimony with my retrospective melodic analysis we can assume that this was deliberate. [6] The interview evidence makes it clear that the song was written using a title-first approach, based on an idea by Evans, as Livingston recalls;

…Ray had the title ‘Primadonna’. There was a big song called Ballerina out[7]. You shouldn’t do it, but you do imitate… [8]

Here, Livingston admits to low-level plagiarism (or at least adaptation) from an existing successful work. Ballerina, like Mona Lisa, scans its four-syllable title over four quavers, albeit at a different point in the bar (the lyric phrase ‘Dance, Ballerina dance’). Livingston responded musically to Evans’s four-syllable title idea by repeating the word ‘Primadonna’ and finishing the melodic phrase with nonsense syllables;

I was driving in the car, and I went ‘Primadonna, Primadonna, de da de da’. I wrote the whole melody [in the car that day]. [9]

The melody of the whole song is structurally rather unusual. It lasts for only 20 bars and although it appears (due to its opening title placement at the start of verse 1) to begin as a predictable AABA standard, it abandons this form somewhere around bar 10, leaving the verse 2 melody to metamorphose, I suggest, into an extended outro that builds to the final melodic resolution provided in the line ‘lovely work of art’. Both songwriters attested to their preferred usual adherence to 32-bar form, and described their deviation from it in Mona Lisa as intentional because the lyric had ‘nothing more to say’[10].

After Evans’s title contribution and Livingston’s commuter-written melody had been created, the partnership evaluated both, with the initial title being replaced by mutual agreement;

Of course, we didn’t like ‘Primadonna’ as a song. He [Evans] came up with the title ‘Mona Lisa’ the next day.[11]

The partnership had therefore reached an agreement that the four-syllable title melody – indeed, the whole melody derived from it – would not be adapted further. The lyric was then fully completed by Evans, presumably in the ‘final’ version that eventually become the definitive Mona Lisa hit (neither Livingston nor Evans allude to any subsequent lyric edits). However, at this point the client intervened, creating new commercial constraints (a change of title for the film) that demanded a rewrite. Livingston and Evans, ever the jobbing professionals, obliged and provided what was required.

They loved title songs because it sold their picture.[12]
…they changed the title of the picture OSS to After Midnight. They said, ‘We need a title song. Throw the lyric to Mona Lisa away and write After Midnight, because that’s a pretty melody and it sounds Italian.’ So we wrote, ‘I’m so lonely / and it’s only / after midnight / Did we leave the / candlelight, the / wine too soon.’ Same melody. [13]

When Livingston says ‘same melody’ he means exactly the same melody – syllable for syllable, with identical pitch and bar placement. Here is the full After Midnight lyric, transcribed from Livingston’s piano demo recording, and published here for the first time;

Soft guitars were playing as we whispered our goodnight
And the gondolier caressed his song
Love is on the way I know it’s just about in sight
May it soon come along
Theme (sung to the ‘Mona Lisa’ melody)
I’m so lonely, though it’s only after midnight
I’m so tattered by the soft Italian moon
I’m so restless, are you restless after midnight?
Did we leave the candlelight, the wine too soon?
Do you lie awake as I’m awake this midnight?
Does the tick-tock of the clock seem much too slow?
In the hush of each long lonely hour
How I miss you, long to kiss you
But I know love will grow, love will flower
And then we’ll share this after midnight afterglow[14]

We can see here the exact preservation of the melody, and its implicit pride of place in the song’s hierarchy; both the client and the collaborative team had clearly decided that the melody was finished (probably in part because it had already successfully circumnavigated the client’s veto by meeting the specification that it must ‘sound Italian’) and were working to find a lyric to fit the constraints of the new commercial brief. The eventually abandoned After Midnight lyric sings extremely well, with a minimum of sibilant and plosive consonants, natural-sounding syllable scansion, and strong vowels in every adjective and noun. To me as a listener, subjectively and with the benefit of hindsight, After Midnight is a weaker lyric. The protagonist’s single-bed reflections on his moonlight-and-wine date are well crafted and tell the song’s story, but the imagery is predictably genre-typical and less new or surprising than the questioner’s unusual and enigmatic speculation in Mona Lisa.

Livingston and Evans were clearly of the same view. Despite having satisfied their client, they preferred their original lyric and thematic concept, but considered that Paramount’s expenditure on an orchestral demo had sealed the fate of Mona Lisa. However, at this point the client changed the film title again, and the partnership took the opportunity to achieve its original creative intention;

We liked Mona Lisa. We didn’t think it was a hit, but it was pretty. But they wouldn’t change it. They wanted that title song [After Midnight]. They made a demo with a 44-piece Paramount orchestra of After Midnight, which means that’s the end of Mona Lisa.
Then we picked up Variety a month later and it said, ‘Alan Ladd’s new picture, After Midnight, is now called Captain Cary, USA.’ We said, ‘Hell, let’s go see if we can get our Mona Lisa lyric back.’ So we went up to one of the executives and he said, ‘We don’t have a demo.’ I said, ‘Yes, you do.’ See, what I did was, there was half an hour left on the recording dates, and I said to this guy, ‘Would you just sing the same melody and read these words off, just for me?’ I don’t know why I did it – just for protection. [15]

This sequence of events shows Livingston and Evans combining creative self-belief (their preference for the original Mona Lisa lyric) with music industry awareness (the need to ‘get their song back’ in copyright terms) production-chain pragmatism (asking a favour to ensure a demo was made), reputational professionalism (achieving all of this without upsetting their client) and economic reasoning (ensuring their song still appeared in the film whilst being suitable for commercial release).

Stimulus processing occurs between the co-writers in a linear fashion; Livingston initially agrees to write a melody in response to Evans’s working title Primadonna. The partnership then evaluates the title in its melodic context and agrees to replace it, keeping the melody fully intact. From the limited evidence base provided by retrospective interviews, veto is not apparent within the partnership, partly perhaps because the co-writers’ roles are so clearly demarcated into music and lyric duties, and because the partnership was, by 1949, more than 10 years old. The co-writers encounter two types of constraint – those they impose themselves (the four-syllable title constraining Livingston’s melodic work, and, later, the finished melody constraining their collaborative lyric work), and those that are imposed upon them (the ‘Italian feel’, instant recognisability and title changes required by the client). They are also constrained by the song form conventions of the era, although in this case they choose to break with (AABA) form – implicitly in service to the melody, and as they later reflect, perhaps also to avoid stretching the lyric theme too thinly.

Who are the true creators of Mona Lisa? There is no doubt that Livingston and Evans are credited as such (e.g. in ASCAP’s records), and that Livingston wrote the music and Evans the lyrics (with collaboration from Livingston). But it is also true to say that this powerful and enduring standard would not sound the way it does today were it not for the creative constraints imposed by Paramount Pictures – before, during and after the original songwriting session. The client’s implicit veto played a significant role, because it preserved the melody throughout the various lyric edits, and also because Livingston and Evans would have been industry-aware enough to know what not to write for a commercial film studio client. For example, they would not have considered writing a song where the title did not appear prominently, given the contemporaneous assumption of cross-media selling of a song in film and audio recording markets. Livingston freely admits that he took the idea of composing a theme from a four-syllable word from Russell and Sigman (Primadonna from Ballerina). And what of the unidentified Italian composers who created accordion melodies involving flattened fifths and maudlin pentatonic descents that the client (and Livingston) heard in the melody? To stretch the thread of artistic influence further, did Leonardo Da Vinci influence the songwriting by creating a painting whose enigmatic facial expression inspired the narrator’s speculation in Evans’s lyric? Should its sitter, Lisa Gherardini[16], be considered to be partly responsible for the song, given that her likeness and expression inspired the painting that inspired its lyric theme? Or are all of these influences simply bisociative links, with Evans and Livingston being ‘creative’ only to the extent that they successfully select, combine and adapt these raw materials? Although some of these questions are deliberately facetious, they do demonstrate the researcher’s ‘anxiety of influence’ in establishing all the contributory factors to a song’s content, given the many cultural and industrial factors in its creation. Interestingly, a 2013 Google search for the text string ‘Mona Lisa by’ is autocompleted by the search engine with the top two suggestions being ‘Nat King Cole’ followed by ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’. We can conclude that, in the data-driven worldwide ‘hive mind’ of Internet search engine users at least, Mona Lisa is ‘owned’ by Nat King Cole – the artist who first recorded it [17].

Mona Lisa demonstrates that Livingston and Evans were, by 1949, an experienced co-writing team with an awareness of market demands, absorption of songwriting convention and contemporaneous repertoire, and a willingness to negotiate – with each other as co-writers, and with their paymasters. Their successful navigation of these challenges among ever-changing industrial and artistic constraints is evidenced in history by the song’s demonstrable endurance as a ‘standard’. The co-writing process shows evidence of cultural influence and commercial intervention. These factors inform collaborative creative endeavour, enabling the co-writing team to pitch their work via industry gatekeepers to a Field of music consumers. Mona Lisa survived the Field’s filters and became a co-written classic – and I contend that the unromantic circumstances of its birth do not prevent it from being a ‘lovely work of art’.


I would like to thank Jay Livingston’s son-in-law and publisher Randy Talmadge for proof-reading this article and for providing additional information about the Livingston/Evans partnership.


[1] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[2] Nat King Cole, Mona Lisa, CD, vol. Nat King Cole – the Ultimate Collection (Capital 2008), 1950,

[3] The Cole recording sounds in Db major – transposed here to C major for clarity.

[4] I use solfège to describe these notes purely for wordcount convenience and clarity. The syllable se refers to a flattened sol (fifth).

[5] The notation is a reductive compromise in terms of timing; Cole’s vocal stretches the timing of the last two syllables of each four considerably, and so not all four-syllable groups are notated as quavers in my transcription.

[6] Copyright footnote: I claim academic Fair Use when providing this annotated 21-bar excerpt. It is reproduced here for scholarly non-commercial purposes only. This reductive transcription represents the topline only and serves to illustrate my discussion of melodic and lyric phrasing in the work.

[7] Ballerina by Sidney Keith Russell and Carl Sigman. Published in 1947; hit recordings include Vaughn Monroe 1947, Bing Crosby 1948, Jimmy Dorsey 1948 and Nat King Cole 1957.

[8] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[9] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[10] Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting, 18.

[11] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.  Actually the title was suggested by Ray’s wife Wyn.

[12] Jay Livingston, Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole – Songfacts, August 1988,

[13] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77. I have underlined the four-syllable phrases as they appear in Mona Lisa for clarity.

[14] Jay Livingston, After Midnight (alternate Lyric for Mona Lisa) (Famous Music Corp (ASCAP), 1949). Transcribed from

[15] Carter, Writing Together : the Songwriter’s Guide to Collaboration, 77.

[16] Heidelberg University library, “Mona Lisa – Heidelberg Discovery Confirms Identity,” 2005,

[17] We can perhaps also conclude that a famous pop song attracts more per-click cultural interest than the world’s most celebrated work of fine art.

The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers #arp13

Nothing can come from nothing. Aristotle knew that this sculpture began as a block of stone…

MOREY, JUSTIN (Leeds Metropolitan University, UK)
MCINTYRE, PHILLIP (Univ. of Newcastle, Australia)

The Creative Studio Practice of Contemporary Dance Music Sampling Composers

This paper seeks to investigate some of the considerations that inform and help to determine the creative studio practice of contemporary sampling composers. Collaborative writing and production, specifically the co-opted collaboration implicit in using samples, will be assessed to consider those aspects of the production process which the participants consider to be authorial. These considerations include acts of listening, selecting and editing. In examining these matters this paper places, emphasis on how sampling composers actively constrain their options in order to promote a creative relationship with their musical material. Techniques such as, firstly, traditional sample manipulation, secondly, the use of a sample as an initial building block for a composition from which the sample is then removed and, finally, live performance in the studio which is subsequently cut up and treated as a sample, will be discussed. Case studies, in the form of semi-structured interviews with sampling composers, will be drawn upon to assess approaches to and views about these forms of studio composition.

Passive Studio-based Songwriting #arp13

The Bee Gees in the studio, early 1980s

O’GRADY, PAT (Macquarie University)

Passive Studio-based Songwriting

[abstract] Studio-based composition is the use of a studio environment and associated recording technology to compose a piece of music. Brian Wilson and Brian Eno exemplify this process, where structure, timbre and textures are altered – sometimes drastically – by recording technology. This paper will examine “passive” use of recording technology for songwriting. By passive, I mean uses of equipment and studio production processes that, although creatively important, do not obviously alter the sonic aesthetic of the finished work. This paper seeks to broaden the concept of studio-based songwriting and composition.

A number of scholars have pointed out the importance of studio work to creative product. Cunningham describes Wilson as conceptualizing the studio as an instrument like a piano or guitar (1998, p. 75-76). Moorefield states that for Eno “what is being made is not a replication or extension of a concert experience, but something altogether different.” (2005, p. 54). Theberge adds that a “sound recording has become productive, not simply reproductive.” (1997, p. 216). These approaches involve an intensive use of recording technology, where it plays a significant role in the sound of the completed work. This paper argues that this conception of studio-based composition confines such practices to more experimental music styles such as electro-acoustic, or psychedelic rock or pop.

Q: Where’s the song? A: It’s the track stupid! #arp13

CHAMBON, PHILIP J. (Kingston University, London)

Q: Where’s the song? A: It’s the track stupid!

[abstract] Many contemporary and indeed historical popular music songs have been created as a result of collaboration and improvisation between individuals in a studio environment (larger controlled spaces, multi-track tape, ProTools), or in a home recording environment (smaller unpredictable spaces, portable reel-to-reel recorders, multi-track cassette recorders, laptops) or a combination of these.

Popular music tracks are referred to as songs, sometimes even if there are no vocals. What is the song? Is it the basic top line – tune and lyrics and the piano chords? Probably not since Brill Building days, or music theatre has a song existed as a score. Paul Simon, one of the most successful songwriters of his generation, is quoted in Levetin (2008, p.2) as saying ‘The way that I listen to my own records is for the sound of them; not the chords or the lyrics – my first impression is of the overall sound’.

Art of Record Production 2013 – Université Laval, Québec #arp13 live blogging

Pavilion Louis-Jacques-Casault, which houses the music department of Université Laval, Québec

I’m here in Québec City for the 8th Art of Record Production conference, where I’m presenting a paper about research methodologies for creativity studies in songwriting. The magnificent building in the picture is Pavilion Louis-Jacques-Casault, which is the location of Université Laval’s music department. The last time I attended ARP was in 2010 (when it was held at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK – see blog entry).

There’s more information about the conference at the Art of Record Production website. ARP publishes Journal On The Art of Record Production (which published my recent article about songwriting in studio practice: download pdf).

As with the two most recent conferences – PopMAC 2013 and IASPM 2013 – I will write real-time summaries of the papers here on the blog whenever time (and connectivity) allows.

IASPM day 4: Popular Music as Prophecy (Rupert Till) #iaspm2013

Popular Music as Prophecy: Composing the Future. Rupert Till (University of Huddersfield, UK)

Attali describes how popular music organises the structures and movements of society into audible sound, before such socio-cultural developments are clearly visible. He described three eras of music and sound, as did Cutler and Frith after him. However he predicted in 1977 a fourth era of sound yet to come, focused on composition. This paper investigates this prophesied new world, discussing the implications of presenting creators of popular music as composers. It investigates how popular musicians describe their creations and what this means. It explores their aesthetics, why they write music, and what the relations are of their compositions to modes of mediation and distribution. It attempts to define popular music composition, and its relationships with songwriting, arrangement, improvisation and production. It asks what we might prophesy for the future of society, on the basis of a musical world where popular music composers circulate their music directly to their audience, in virtual and social media music communities outside of existing national geographic boundaries.

Rupert starts with his theoretical framework, citing Attali (1977), Cutler (1993) and Frith (1996). Allati has a ‘4th code’ focusing on composition [from his Four Stages of Music]. His Ritual (Oral – 10,000yrs)/Sacrifice (c.400yrs)/Repetition (recordings – c.100yrs)/Composition (deregulation – the future?). Attali’s view is that when the focus is on making and sharing music for pleasure we (will?) begin to enter the ‘composition’ phase.

He points out that popular music ‘composition’ deconstructs the elitism of the classical tradition and therefore may be more apt for a ‘Composition’ age. He then talks about songwriting and describes it as a ‘special case’ of composition, for several reasons, not least because it involves lyrics. He alludes to ‘team composition’ and the blurred line between songwriting, production and arrangement, especially in rehearsal/recording studio creative environments. In Attali’s view (1977, remember) was that in a notational ‘composition era’ these activities could be carried out at home, by an individual.

IASPM day 4: Musical Chameleons – Fluency and Flexibility in Online Appropriation Practices #iaspm2013

Nenna. She came to rock!

Musical Chameleons – Fluency and Flexibility in Online Appropriation Practices. Maarten Michielse (Maastricht University, Netherlands)

This paper argues that music audiences who spend their free time remixing, mashing up, and covering popular music online are often not fans, as we perhaps might expect (Jenkins 1992, 2006), but rather ‘enthusiasts’: music hobbyists who work with any source material, no matter the original artist or genre (Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998; Geoghegan 2009). Remix enthusiasts, for example, tend to enter online remix contests of artists and songs that they often do not know or particularly like. Similarly, cover enthusiasts on platforms such as YouTube tend to work with a broad variety of different source materials, often choosing their songs pragmatically (in terms of popularity, actuality or the challenge that they offer) rather than affectively. This paper uses a combination of online participatory observations and qualitative interviews (see Hine 2000; Kozinets 2010) to show how music enthusiasts find joy in constantly broadening their horizon and developing, what Gouzouasis calls, musical ‘fluency’ and ‘flexibility’ (Gouzouasis 2005; see also Guilford 1967) in order to be able to appropriate ever new source materials in a quick and meaningful way.

The presentation opens with a playback of the song ‘We Came To Rock’ by ‘Nenna’ which was provided as source material for a recent remix competition. The song was derided by the remix community, but interestingly several remixers (who stated online that they hated the source material!) downloaded the files and remixed it anyway! Maarten challenges the prevailing mainstream view that remixers only work on music that they like. He states that remixing opportunities are limited to situations where the raw materials (isolated multi-track files) are available. He points out that filtering [e.g. nulling, hard pan etc] can be applied to isolate audio objects in a mix but it is sonically often unsatisfactory [I have suggested elsewhere in this week’s blog that the popularity of the Funky Drummer loop can be ascribed in part simply to its brief isolation in the mix]. So remixers often work with what Maarten calls ‘the usual suspects’ (i.e. mainstream successful/viral works) because this may mean that the remix may be appreciated by a wider audience. He stresses that remixers are not entirely cynical – rather, they want to engage with listeners and other creators – and this is part of the motivation for choosing mainstream work as the source audio for the remix.

IASPM: Panel: Drumming, Drum Kits and Drummers (Gareth Dylan Smith, Matt Brennan, Bill Bruford)

A Phenomenological Study of Drumming. Gareth Dylan Smith (Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, London)

The presenter – a drummer in punk, blues, and riff-rock bands – explores the real-time, spatial, embodied experience of playing the drums, in an attempt to convey the essence of what it feels like to make music on the instrument, alone and with others, in various musical situations. The presenter draws on audio, video, metaphor, analogy and rich, intimate personal descriptions to convey the intangible – but known and, to many, familiar – sense of what it is to be a drummer in time, body and space. He uses the writing of Merleau-Ponty as a framework to discuss the ‘re-creation and re-constitution of the world [and of music] at every moment’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1945: 240). Also referencing ‘trancing’ (Becker, 2004), ‘groove’ (Feld and Keil, 1994), ‘listening’ (Jean-Luc Nancy, 2002), and the ‘magic ride’ (Hart, 1990), the presenter argues that a phenomenological lens is an essential element in understanding the art of drumming. Evidence from other musical instruments and disciplines is considered to build the case that such a view of how music is realised may be crucial to understanding musical experiences in cultures around the world, including in popular music where the drum kit and its emulation retain central roles

Two Worlds Collide – Originality and Plagiarism in Songwriting (Joe Bennett)

Joe at IASPMHere’s my abstract for this morning’s presentation. All the slides will be posted here soon, so for now here’s a link to a book chapter that sets today’s paper in context of the my research into the creative processes used by songwriters.

Joe Bennett (Bath Spa University, UK)

For a song to attract copyright it must be original. Songwriters therefore need to avoid plagiarism whilst working within the established constraints of song form. Any song that is too similar to another will breach its copyright; one that deviates too far from established norms may not survive the marketplace. Copyright law protects songwriters from accidental or flagrant plagiarism, but it can only protect musical elements that can be codified. Demers (2006) argues that this has led to a privileging of melody, lyric and harmony, offering these elements more protection than auditory artefacts such as timbre, production or arrangement. Industrially, ‘song’ and ‘track’ are economically separated but in creative practice – and in the ear of the listener – the distinction is not so easy to make. This paper will explore the difference between song originality as enshrined in case law and will contrast these with examples of homage/copying that have not been shown to infringe copyright. Drawing on the presenter’s own experience as an expert witness musicologist in copyright disputes, it will discuss the moral and legal ambiguity of the dividing line between ‘song’ and ‘track’ and what this means for songwriting’s creative development in the future. 

IASPM session 2 – Re(listening) Popular Music History: Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)

TIn Pan Alley

Tin Pan Story, Keir Keightley (University of Western Ontario, Canada)


Between 1910 and 1919, a spate of stories set in Tin Pan Alley (the New York sheet-music publishing district) appeared in mass-circulation magazines, newspapers, and cinemas. These contributed to the growing popular knowledge about how popular music was manufactured and promoted; thus they can offer us useful views of the workings of the early music industry, from a perspective that differs somewhat from non-fictional accounts of this period. My paper will explore what these stories tell us in particular about the evaluation of popular music and its frequently fraudulent industrial practices. These largely “romantic” narratives are driven by a conception of Tin Pan Alley as a place where authentic love and authentic musical creation/production can become, against the odds, intertwined and interdependent. Here also we glimpse the rising prominence of “backstage” or insider accounts of cultural industries in the 1910s, prior to Hollywood’s mass of self-revelations and self-mystifications of the 1920s. Together, these insights can contribute to a broader historicisation of contemporary notions of authenticity in general, and of their mainstream, mediated roots in particular. This paper represents the next phase of my current work on a genealogy of “mainstream” authenticity, first presented at my Liverpool 2009 plenary, “Tin Pan Allegory”.

You can’t teach songwriting! (from Total Guitar magazine)

This article originally appeared in Total Guitar magazine issue 231, September 2012. Reproduced by permission. Words: Joe Bennett. Illustration: Andy Watt. Click the image to download a pdf.

TG231 screenshotTo many songwriters and music fans, the title above seems pretty self-evident. Most successful songwriters weren’t taught how to write songs, and besides, songwriting is a form of self-expression, so what’s to teach?

Perhaps surprisingly, speaking as someone who ‘teaches’ songwriting, I’d go a long way towards agreeing with this statement. There is no formula for writing a song, and although there are methods and techniques that are in common use, these are so varied that it’s impossible to identify one that works in every situation. But if we assume that most songwriters don’t write their best work on the first attempt, it follows that if songwriting can’t be taught, it can certainly be learnt.

How, exactly, do we learn? If popular song is a form of self-expression, it could be viewed as a kind of language, with its own grammar, structure and rules. We can learn a (second) language by buying a phrase book or working with a teacher, but it’s easier just to go and live in the relevant country – and of course we learned our first language just by growing up hearing it every day.

The first teaching method is to ensure that the student has heard lots of songs, and by ‘heard’ I mean really listened in detail. If you love a particular songwriter’s work, it’s worth putting the hours into working out exactly how their songs are constructed. How many bars are in the intro? How many times per bar do the chords change? What rhymes, images and syllable-counts are used in the lyric? Is the melody mainly scalic (consecutive notes), static (repeated notes) or intervallic (leaping between notes)? We don’t necessarily have to copy all of these characteristics all of the time, but a little bit of this sort of geeky analysis can help us to understand what we love about our musical influences. By analysing repertoire, we can build up an arsenal of songwriting weaponry from which to choose when we’re writing. Our song could begin with four bars of Pearl Jam-style half-bar chord changes, have an opening lyric with some Joni Mitchell-esque visual lyric imagery, using descending scalic melody sequences reminiscent of JS Bach. And because we’re only copying compositional characteristics (as opposed to the actual music or lyric) we’re still being creative. This method can help us to break existing musical habits: paradoxically, using someone else’s techniques can make our own songs sound more original.

TG231 illustrationThe second teaching method is to apply all of the above to our own songs, and learn about our personal songwriting styles. We all have subconscious musical rat-runs in our songwriting. One of my own students recently discovered, through self-analysis, that he’d written an entire album where every melody phrase started on the second beat of the bar. Once he’d realised this he could choose to allow or avoid the tendency; in this way he developed new creative options in his songwriting, making his albums more interesting for the listener.

The final, and perhaps most important teaching method, is disappointingly obvious. In a word – practice. Songwriting is a musical (and literary) skill and it gets better the more you do it. A guaranteed way to make your songwriting ten times better is to write ten songs and trash your least favourite nine.

But this is all unnecessary, cry the naysayers. The Beatles were never taught songwriting – they just wrote from the heart. Well, not taught perhaps, but they certainly learned. Strumming along to Little Richard and Carl Perkins records in Liverpool living rooms – and six-hour covers band sets in Hamburg clubs? Repertoire analysis. Co-writer negotiations between Lennon and McCartney? Self-analysis. And the journey from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’? Practice.

So no, you probably can’t teach songwriting. But every time we listen to the radio, go to a gig or play a cover version, we’re learning to write better songs.

Eurovision 2013 live blogging

Logo[This is a live blog – hit ‘refresh’ in your browser throughout the evening and the most recently performed song will appear at the top. As in 2012, each song will be scored as we hear it. Geeky musicological commentary will be added wherever possible. As always I’m going to try (and will probably fail) to pick a winner.]

So, to the predictions. I am typing this at 22:07 on the night, and will, as in previous years, leave my (inevitably wrong!) top 3 here for posterity, and afterwards will post the actual winners below these. I got two of the top 3 right in 2012, but I’m worried this was a fluke. I really want Greece’s ‘Alcohol is free’ to do well, but I fear that there may not be enough irony in mainland Europe to fuel its deserved propulsion up the ranks. I’m also concerned that my grumpiness about Ireland may be misplaced – people might just buy those lyric clichés. They’ve done it before, and will carry on… till the end of time…

2013 Eurovision – my predicted top 3

  1. Denmark
  2. Norway
  3. Russia

—————- [edit – 23:30pm]

2013 Eurovision – actual top 5

  1. Denmark
  2. Azerbaijan
  3. Ukraine
  4. Norway
  5. Russia

So all of my top 3 were in the top 5 – but I missed two big songs (Azerbaijan and Ukraine) by a fair distance, only scoring them as 61% and 64% respectively.  But the blog successfully predicted the winner in both 2012 and 2013 (albeit after a total disaster in 2011, where I failed to get any of the top 3).

Overall, I thought the song quality was way higher in 2013 than in previous years, with a general consistency of good quality songwriting across the board. See you next year!

—————– [end of edit]

26 Ireland • Ryan Dolan • “Only Love Survives”