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Dr Dicky Gilbers: ‘The Top 2000 is full of near-plagiarism’

14 December 2011

The Top 2000, which will be broadcast on Radio 2 from Christmas Day onwards, is full of near-plagiarism. At least this is the opinion of Dicky Gilbers, linguist at the University of Groningen and music buff. ‘Recording artists think that they have thought up their own work, but in their quest for the perfect melody, they actually all fall back on the same song structures and chord schemes. You can’t really call it plagiarism, but in many ways, they’re singing the same song over and over.’ Gilbers sees interesting parallels with human language. ‘We wouldn’t be able to make head or tail of language or music without the simple structures on which they are based.’

Dicky Gilbers
Dicky Gilbers

Bohemian Rhapsody , the Queen song that was number one this year, is a bit of an odd man out in the Top 2000, explains Gilbers. ‘If you ask large groups of people to vote for their favourite song (which is how the Top 2000 works), you get a list of songs that are easy to listen to. Songs that are based on similar chord schemes and song structures.’ To Gilbers’ mind, complex songs like the ‘winning’ number by Queen, are exceptions to this rule. ‘No matter how well they do in the list nowadays, they won’t stand the ultimate test of time like songs by the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Not because I happen to enjoy them more, but simply because they are more enjoyable.’ He laughs. ‘Oh yes, you certainly can account for taste.’

Objectively enjoyable

So songwriters always revert to the same chord schemes, and audiences always enjoy listening to the same chord schemes. This is because certain tones are simply made for each other, explains Gilbers. The distance between a C and a G, also known as a fifth, sounds so good because the sound waves of the tone objectively belong together. Gilbers: ‘In effect, music is no more than vibrating air. You can measure the vibrations and reproduce them as waves. If you do this, you see that some tones simply don’t gel, while others fit together perfectly. All listeners throughout the world are intrinsically aware of this, whether they are musically trained or not.’

Music is like language

Seen from this perspective, music and language have an awful lot in common, continues Gilbers. ‘Language is also vibrating air, which you receive in your ears. If you want to understand it at all, you have to define the underlying structures in much the same way as with music. Every listener is subconsciously able to distinguish the main chord in a piece of music, and in the same way, people speaking a language are able to identify the most important sound in a syllable or word. Anyone wanting to know how language works should study the structure of music, and vice versa.’

Mozart without the frills

The elementary nature of the ‘rules’ of music can be perfectly illustrated by analyzing complex musical compositions. Gilbers: ‘Take Mozart. He uses a lot more chord transitions and embellishments than are used in pop music. But if you take away the frills, you find much the same chord schemes as in Yesterday by the Beatles, for example.’ The more variations that are made to the basic rules of music, and the more decisively the composer deviates from the basic rules, the more complex the music becomes and the smaller the group of listeners that appreciate it. Gilbers: ‘The sheer complexity of Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen makes it an atypical pop song. A lot of the other symphonic rock from the 1970s hasn’t stayed the course; the public soon returns to simple melodies.’

Hotel California: plagiarism?

In the quest for the perfect song, recording artists tend to rely on the same chord schemes. So it is hardly surprising that the Top 2000 contains countless examples of near-plagiarism. Gilbers: ‘Obviously some songs have just been copied. Number three in the list, Child in Time by Deep Purple, is a direct copy of Bombay’s Calling by It’s a Beautiful Day, a great but long-forgotten band. Although the Deep Purple band members originally denied it, the theft is unmistakeable. And number two in this year’s list, Hotel California by the Eagles, is a carbon copy of We Used to Know by Jethro Tull. But as the chord scheme is so very obvious, it’s difficult to call it plagiarism. Pop music is full of cases like this, so the Top 2000 is no exception.’

Curriculum vitae

Dicky Gilbers (1956) is Associate Professor of Language in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen. He is also an active songwriter and musician. He has been exploring the parallels between language and music since taking his degree in Dutch language and literature. In addition, he is researching the way that cognitively stored ideal forms affect our production and perception of speech.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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