Earlier this week, a California federal jury held Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams liable for $7.4m in damages because of copyright infringement, due to the similarities between “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The ruling has been largely greeted with schadenfreude, probably because Thicke is a massive dick and the world seems happy to see him get what appears to be a richly-deserved comeuppance. The only problem? The ruling sets a pretty scary precedent, and is highly questionable from the perspective of music theory. In this feature, writer and music theory graduate Dan Bogosian explains why.
The “Blurred Lines” decision is either a tragic ruling or an insane joke. Per the verdict of the California jury that’s been hearing the case, Thicke’s “rapey” anthem “Blurred Lines” is a direct rip-off of Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” The ruling comes after nearly two years of odd litigation, from Thicke trying to preemptively sue the Gaye estate to this actual glorious court drawing.
Though the payment could’ve been avoided had Thicke and Williams read our guide to getting away with pop plagiarism, I thought it would be best to look at it from a neutral standpoint based only on the actual music, given how this ruling could establish a dangerous precedent.
Music theory analyzes music in specific ways — the rhythm, the harmony, and the melody. From a purely scientific standpoint, here’s how the two songs compare.
The groove is similar, but the rhythms are not.
There’s a big conceit here: Williams’ beat was clearly influenced by Gaye’s. He admitted as much, but this requires no expertise to hear. That doesn’t provide enough grounds for anything on its own, though, otherwise every composer who wrote a march in the past century owes John Philip Souza, who composed everything from “Stars and Stripes Forever” to what most people think of as the Monty Python theme, a ton of money.
The two songs aren’t actually rhythmically similar beyond the beat: the lead vocal lines are far different, with Thicke sticking to simple rhythms on beat while Gaye stunts his to off-beat notes with inconsistent lengths. It’s important to note that T.I. raps on “Blurred Lines,” too; this may seem like an obvious thing to point out, but if you were to write out the rhythms for the two songs, T.I.’s verse alone puts “Blurred Lines” on an entirely separate plane. Your dance moves might be the same, but the rhythms are not.
The harmonies are not the same.
In fact, they’re not even similar. They’re set in different keys, with Thicke’s song in G major and Gaye’s in A major — but even if they weren’t, Gaye’s composition still has a different set of chords and Thicke uses a clever twist that Gaye doesn’t.
There are literally only two chords in “Blurred Lines”; a lot of people have inappropriately labeled it G to D, but it’s actually C/G to D. That’s one of the gratifying things about the song: because the C chord doesn’t have a C in the bass, it maintains tension throughout. It would’ve made an interesting, albeit short, feature for Owen Pallett’s Slate series: the genius of Williams and Thicke has the bass doing one thing, and everything else doing another.
This progression is known as IV to V, and it’s one of the most common set of harmonies in all of music; it happens in every single doo-wop song, and in roughly half of all pop songs and classical compositions. A bassline that never hits the root or truly resolves is unusual nowadays, but it’s actually the defining trait that makes the opening moment of “Blurred Lines” funky.
On the other hand, “Got to Give it Up” has twice as many chords as Thicke’s (four versus two), and includes the IV to V chord progression on every repeat. Each repeat resolves, never using the strange tension in the bass the way “Blurred Lines” does.
The strongest point to make here is that even if you put them in the same key, “Got To Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines” would not be mistaken for the same song. If the similarities in chords are enough for the songwriters to owe Gaye, than Smokey Robinson should hire a good lawyer; the chord progression to “Got To Give It Up” is commonplace in soul, and as the leading Motown songwriter, Robinson used IV to V on several hits a decade before “Got to Give it Up” was released.
No one on Earth would confuse the two melodies.
The melody, for all intents and purposes, is the aspect of songs most people notice first. It’s what you end up whistling on your commute and singing in the shower. The “hey, hey, hey” bit leaves the scale of the song by using a chromatic passing tone — C, C#, D. Marvin Gaye’s melody stays entirely in the scale. (Another small conceit: the bass in Gaye’s work uses the same chromatic passing motion as the “hey, hey, hey” part, but I don’t think the court was ruling that the fill Gaye plays on synth bass was ripped off by three uses of “hey”.)
“Got To Give It Up” opens with a melodic run that spans the same musical distance as the entire Thicke song. It’s actually a perfect vehicle to show off Gaye’s voice; the run is challenging by itself, and he routinely jumps up and down four scale notes — no easy feat for an untrained vocalist. “Blurred Lines” is the opposite: the reason everyone seems to be able to sing along with Thicke isn’t just that the lyrics are sexual assault mottos, but rather, that they’re sung entirely within the first five notes of the major scale (i.e. the pentascale).
To put it in more digestible terms: Thicke’s vocal performance is comparable to Ringo Starr’s in “Yellow Submarine,” and Marvin Gaye was one of soul music’s greatest talents because of vocal parts like “Got To Give It Up.”
The jury got almost everything wrong.
Throwing aside that Marvin Gaye’s song is nearly three times as long as “Blurred Lines,” it’s still obvious that the melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, and rhythms are different. From a non-theory perspective, the production is way different; the snare drum sounds like an overproduced sample on one, and an under-microphoned live track (complete with bleeding) on another. The song’s grooves are similar, but nearly nothing else is.
What opens up larger problems is where influence ends and stealing begins. From a theory standpoint, there’s nothing but a similar groove. Ex Hex might owe Jeff Lynne some cash for “How You Got That Girl” (especially since we know Lynne is litigious); Fountains of Wayne should expect a lawsuit from The Cars any day now for the intro of “Stacey’s Mom,” especially given their transparency; disco revivalists should be on watch from the Donna Summer estate and Giorgio Moroder for “I Feel Love”; if The Who were more litigious about ripoffs, Taylor Swift might wanna watch her back over her New York anthem. The list goes on and on. The “Blurred Lines” ruling actually encourages litigation from the copyright holders of old hits, most of whom are publishing companies, rather than individual artists.
While few would dare defend “Blurred Lines” for its content, its composition does not deserve this ruling. Thicke’s real mistake may have been name-checking Gaye in multiple interviews, which enabled the Gaye family to push even harder. Now they’re currently trying to block all sales of “Blurred Lines” until a better royalty agreement can be worked out. In the same way that George Harrison’s decade-long battle over “My Sweet Lord” vs. The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” created the legal precedent for subconscious plagiarism that holds up still, the court has put musicians on a slippery slope into the dangerous waters of conscious homage vs. full-blown ripoff.