Don’t feed that Serotonin urge on stolen goods

Published Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Blurred Lines Got To Give It Up…

Lots of talk this week on the $7.4 million win for the Marvin Gaye estate against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke creators of the 2013 super hit song Blurred Lines. The news is a few days old but I wanted to put it in to context as it is a land mark ruling that may have far reaching implications for the music industry.

The case centers around theft of copyright or rather non acknowledgment of copyright ownership leading to non payment of royalty due to the Marvin Gaye family who own and manage the legacy of the great singer. They stated the song “Blurred Lines” performed and recorded by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke would not have existed if it we not for the song “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye.

In fact it was not even the Gaye family who accused Pharrell and Robin of theft of copyright, it was merely casually suggested, no legal notice was sent even though there seemed to be a good reason to do so. In response Robin and Pharrell said though the song is similar in style, feel and era, it is not a rip off of Marvin’s song and it was they who filed a legal case against the Gaye family for even suggesting they had stolen it. Lawyers representing Pharrell and Robin argued that no one should be allowed to claim ownership on a style or genre or even a sound that represents and era or area.

Amazingly the court was not allowed to hear Blurred Lines in order to compare it to Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up as that in itself would be a breach of copyright. Even so, lawyers for the Gaye family managed to convince the jury of what they termed the “heart” of Blurred Lines (the groove, the bass line and rhythm) was indeed too similar to Got To Give It Up to call it an influence or a coincidence. The jury found in favor of the Gaye family and awarded compensation. Robin and Pharrell are now labeled copyright thieves but that may not be justified because a hit song will always be similar to another but unique in some way.

Most, in fact all commercially successful songs are derivative of another sound, style or rhythmic or melodic pattern. The reason we like some songs and not others especially Pop songs, can be attributed some what scientifically to a paradox of similarity combined with originality. The mind searches for patterns in everything and when it finds them it releases serotonin for a brief victory party. This feels very good and the serotonin reward encourages the mind to search for more patterns which in itself is a pattern of search, find and reward.

We’ve all seen this subconscious pattern searching in music at some level or another. You know that satisfying feeling when you hear a song for the first time and halfway in to it you latch on to the hook and predict what will happen next. Feels good when your foot and leg and eventually whole body starts and stops moving to the song’s rhythm and changes even though you have never heard it before.

You can see this even in underground music like Drum ’n’ Bass where the patten is complex enough to alienate most people but for those who find the groove they feel special and form their own communities around the music. Same can be said for any genre or sub genre like Jazz Funk or Death Metal. The wonderful thing is, if its too easy to recognize the pattern then the mind feels cheated and no serotonin reward is released. This is why those who like Fusion or Dubstep don’t really connect to easy-to-like Pop because they feel less smart by doing so.

Blurred Lines has a lovely pattern and this is one of the reasons it was such a massive hit, the biggest of 2013. I heard it on the radio while driving and thought “what a dumb song…” at the beginning but half way though when my mind identified the repetitive pattern in the melody and groove I was bouncing away, just like you were.

Truth is I never heard the Marvin Gaye song it is copied from but legally that is not relevant. The fact that this unique pattern was created decades before meant that the song cheated in balancing originality and predictability, at least in the eyes of copyright law. The Gaye family had every right to stand up to the theft of Marvin Gaye’s legacy and it is widely seen as a good judgment for the music industry.