Earlier this month, a forty-two-follower SoundCloud user named Steve Ronsen issued a claim that Lady Gaga and her songwriting partner Mark Ronson plagiarized their smash hit “Shallow” from A Star Is Born (2018). Ronsen asserts that three notes from his song “Almost” are similar to three notes in “Shallow” and is currently seeking to “get to the bottom of this.” Lady Gaga emphatically denies the accusation and has declared publicly that she’ll battle it out in court should Ronsen and his legal team decide to pursue the matter legally.
Although Ronsen has stated he’s hired a musicologist who concludes “the two songs sound similar,” most people who can hear are calling out the accusation for what it is…absurd. These sorts of claims are gaining traction in the industry so no one can be surprised it’s happening again, nor will likely cease in the near future.
Before I delve into the complexities of plagiarism, we need to be sure we truly understand what it means:
pla•gia•rism | ˈplājəˌrizəm |
the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own.
By Oxford’s definition, plagiarism is an act of theft. An action must occur where one takes work from another and passes it off as their own. There are laws in place which protect intellectual property rights from this vile form of theft whether the act was deliberate or not. Just like you can’t accidentally steal a television set from your neighbor’s house, you likewise can’t subconsciously steal a musical idea. Even on a subconscious level, theft is a very deliberate act.
Before the accusation, Ronsen had accumulated approximately 300 streams of his song “Almost” and as of this writing, now has more than 730,000 (just on YouTube alone). If there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then this publicity has already proven somewhat valuable if yet undefined.
So what are the offending three notes common in both “Shallow” and “Almost”? Both songs are in the key of G major. This is not uncommon as there are only 12 major and 12 minor keys in which to compose a song and at least half of those aren’t often used due to an over-crowding of accidentals or its placement within comfortable vocal ranges. For guitar-based songs, the key of G major (and its relative E minor), is in fact, one of the most common keys to pen a song.
The first note of the phrase is the third scale degree of an E-minor chord which climbs stepwise along with the bass in parallel thirds to A (the fifth scale degree of the dominant chord in first inversion, D/F#), before climbing step-wise yet again to the third pitch of the tonic G. In solfeggi it’s La-Ti-Do which is not particularly unique by itself, in fact, it’s the last three notes of any major scale. (In “Shallow” it occurs at the line, “I’m fall-ing…”).
From a guitar perspective the relationship between E minor to G major is important because of the standard way a guitar is tuned and the way its six-strings are structured across the fretboard. It makes it very easy to hit the F# in the bass when using the dominant chord D as a functional transition between the two chords (which are relative to each other). This is often referred to as “walking up” or “walking down” the scale. If I’m jamming on an Em chord and the band leader says “now walk up to G” I know exactly what they mean. I’m to play the D with the F# in the bass and then hit the G major chord. It’s incredibly easy under the fingers which is why it's so prevalent in this style of music in this particular key. While these notes are common in the music of many classic rock and country guitar players like Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, The Beatles, Jeff Beck, Chet Atkins, Willie Nelson, and hundreds (thousands?) of others, these are the three notes Ronsen appears to claim are attributable only to him.
Let’s dig even deeper. The three notes outlining the harmony in “Shallow” represent three of the four most common chords in all of popular music (I - IV - vi - V). In fact, the final chord needed to round out the four (the subdominant, C major or IV chord) in both “Shallow” and “Almost” comes in right after the progression of these three notes in question (in “Shallow” it comes in with the line “In all the good times…” but on the 2nd scale degree of C major, not the tonic pitch as in “Almost” - a significant melodic deviation). So if you have Em - D/F# - G - C in your song, congratulations, you’ve just used the four most common chords in the history of songwriting!
Are there any other musical characteristics or commonalities in “Almost” that make it sound similar to “Shallow”? I’ve played through the tune a number of times, and nothing I’ve heard comes close to resembling anything in “Shallow.” It’s by layman ears, a completely different song. That’s it. The scalar ascension of three notes outlining three of the most common chords in one of the most ubiquitous keys in all of popular music is somehow the singular idea of Steve Ronsen?
So what is going on here? Is it plagiarism, influence, or just an example of coincidence?
According to Jonathan Bailey (author and webmaster of Plagiarism Today), in order for an artist to successfully prove their work has been plagiarized, the artist must 1). prove the work is original, 2). prove the work was protected, 3). demonstrate the plagiarist had access to it, 4). prove the work was copied, 5). prove it lacks attribution.
It used to take some effort proving the plagiarist had access to a particular work; however, in our modern days of the world wide web and digital streaming services, proving access is seemingly effortless. As soon as a song is posted online, even if you only have a dozen followers or a hundred streams, literally everybody in the world with an internet connection has access to it.
It would be interesting to do a study of plagiarism cases adjudicated during the last twenty years to determine what percentage of those are music-related and what verdicts were rendered compared to cases featuring other intellectual properties. I’m sure the data is out there. Anecdotally speaking, it appears the ease of distributing music via on-line streaming services has propelled music-related plagiarism claims into a system of abuse when compared to other vocations. The internet likewise facilitates an immediate method of distribution for visual artists, writers, painters, poets, and others; however, plagiarism cases in these areas seem more easily defined. I’ve seen many of Mondo’s artists’ works bootlegged across the internet. That’s obvious. There are text scanners that can evaluate written samples and compare them to other published works for plagiarism. That too is a little more obvious. But music? Where does the line of demarcation reside when judging whether a piece of music has been plagiarized? It’s certainly not obvious and therein lies the crux of our predicament.
What role does the artist have in this storm? If you’re a creator of music and you listen to vast quantities of it, it’s inevitable that tiny fragments of melody, harmony, or rhythm from one piece will bear resemblance to a corresponding fragment from another. I’ve composed hundreds of hours of music in my career and although I can honestly tell you I’ve never had another composer’s music in mind when I scribed my notes, I inevitably get people telling me my music sounds like X or Y, and they’re always fascinating observations to me. Sometimes ideas seep in because I’m influenced by everything around me. I hear a rhythm, or an appoggiatura, or chord resolution that pleases me and it finds its way into my music. As connoisseurs of art, we demand and expect this from artists we patronize. It’s the influence from their world that we are consuming when we experience their art.
Likewise, I’ve heard thousands of examples across the musical universe where piece X or Y sounds like something I’ve composed in the past. It’s inevitable. I’ve even had my music used as a temp score and the resulting final score sounded a lot like my original score (which is certainly flattering); however, I’m quick to point out that that is not an example of plagiarism.
While temp music certainly influences a lot of modern scores, there are instances where composers are pushed to ape other pieces so intimately it turns into plagiarism. In 2006, Warner Bros. had to publicly apologize for plagiarizing large sections of Elliot Goldenthal’s score for Titus (1999) in the score for Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006). Composer Tyler Bates weathered the brunt of the criticism; however, it was the filmmakers who insisted Bates continually craft his score to be more like the temp music. This happens all too frequently. Like Icarus and his wings, Bates was simply pushed to fly too close to the sun.
Not many composers get the opportunity to create their work in a vacuum. We are all influenced by what we have heard, seen, felt, touched and experienced in the past. It’s inescapable. Artists respond in their own work all of the things that led them to love their art in the first place.
You don’t know how many times in my career I’ve had folks attempt to convince me that John Williams stole his theme for Jaws (1975) and then bloviate on the similarities between Williams’ motif and any number of pieces they think they hear it in. In order to understand the existence of this particular musical idea, you have to look at the motif itself and its context. When you strip away the contextual relationship between its construction and its function, you’ll discover there is truly nothing unique in all of musical literature about a three-note ostinato built upon undulating quavers a half-step apart. In fact that idea, in and of itself, is everywhere in music. If somebody wants to say that Williams stole it from here or there then they are free to express that; however, I can recall countless similar motifs in music that predate most of the examples claimed as the source of the lift. True music composition lies not in the idea itself, but ultimately what one does with it. The genius of Williams’ shark theme from Jaws is how he employs a relatively banal motif for the manipulation and conditioning of an audience for the benefit of forming a shared narrative experience. That’s the art.
A close friend of mine who is an ardent admirer of John Williams had the opportunity to meet him in person and said to him, "Mr. Williams, I consider myself quite knowledgeable in the area of classical music and I have to tell you that I heard three different composers’ works in your score for Star Wars.”
Williams responded, "My friend, you obviously don't know that much about classical music because you missed the other eight!".
I like this story a lot because it demonstrates how what we digest affects us as artists and our work. It's not a matter of stealing ideas but rather unleashing everything your mind has absorbed during the years of your life and letting it affect your art. This can be difficult for a patron of music to gauge because melody is an intangible element that exists only through the ears of the one who is listening; however, this is ultimately true with all art forms. Just because somebody employs architectural concrete in a building design doesn't mean they're stealing from Tadao Ando. Just because a film has a psychological twist at the end doesn’t mean they’re stealing from Hitchcock. And just because somebody paints the crucifixion of Christ doesn't mean they are stealing from Caravaggio, or Michelangelo, or Raphael, or Rubens, or Rembrandt, or Bosch, or Dali, or…
The bottom line is nobody wants to live in a world where art is dissected, placed under a microscope, and plundered for its molecular similarities to other works. I certainly don’t want to live in this world. Lady Gaga surely doesn’t want to live in this world, and I’m certain Steve Ronsen doesn’t want to live in this world either. This world will smother art into extinction.
So what can we do? We must prosecute plagiarism, embrace inspiration, and accept coincidence. Understanding the difference is one of the many reasons why developing musical literacy from a young age is so vital to us all. It’s motivation to strengthen endangered music programs in our public schools. Musical literacy fortifies all art forms whether you’re a creator or simply a consumer. There are plenty who are truly guilty of plagiarism; however, we must make a concerted effort to differentiate between malicious plagiarism and the serendipitous result of influence or coincidence that is inevitable from so many creations. The future of art depends on it.