Measure For Measure: Steal This Song

psimon1979aaa-1000x1000As the old saying goes, “A good composer does not imitate; he steals.”

Videos by American Songwriter

But don’t expect that argument to hold up when you wind up in copyright court. Incidentally, copyright law varies, so investigate. As a rule, compositions dated 1922 or later and all sound recordings to the year 2067 are covered (see Circular 15A, U.S. Copyright Office).

The line between imitation and theft is a fine one, but there is one safe way to steal some great song material: raid the repertoires of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, and company. Pop song composers do it all the time. Just for fun, take the following quiz (answers at the end of the column):

Match these classics: 1) “Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring,” J.S. Bach; 2) “Gymnopedie No. 1,” Erik Satie; 3) “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Variation 18,” Sergei Rachmaninov; 4) “Plaisir d’Amour,” Paul Martini; 5) “Canon in D,” Johann Pachelbel; 6) “Minuet in G,” J.S. Bach (or Christian Petzold); 7) Cantata 156, “Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe,” J.S. Bach; 8), Piano Sonata No. 8, Pathétique, L.V. Beethoven; 9) Symphony No. 5 (horn motif), Jean Sibelius; 10) “Moonlight Sonata,” L.V. Beethoven

With these pop songs: A) “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum; B) “If I Had You,” The Korgis; C) “Because,” John Lennon; D) “A Lover’s Concerto,” The Toys; E) “This Night,” Billy Joel; F) “Since Yesterday,” Strawberry Switchblade; G) “All Together Now,” The Farm; H) “Someone To Call My Lover,” Janet Jackson; I) “Lady Lynda,” The Beach Boys; J) “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” Elvis Presley

Challenge yourself: After you answer the quiz questions, dig deeper: Figure out how the arranger effected the classical-to-pop transformation in each song.

Paul Simon has been one of America’s most intelligent, prolific, and melodically inventive songwriters for more than 50 years now and Rolling Stone picked “American Tune” as one of his 10 best songs. Written in 1973, when Vietnam, Kent State, and the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations weighed heavily on everyone’s minds, “American Tune” asserts its timeless quality once again in the wake of the acrimonious 2016 presidential campaign.

But Paul must have had his tongue at least partly in cheek when he penned the title, because “American Tune” is based on a German import, the chorale to J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” (1727). The plot thickens when you hear that Bach borrowed the melody from a hymn arranged by Johann Crüge in 1656, and Crüge lifted his melody from a love song, “Mein G’müth ist mir verwirret,” by Hans Leo Hassler in 1600. Hassler, in turn, may have ripped off a Bavarian folk song. But the chain of theft doesn’t end there. The melody crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and was eventually picked up by the labor movement. Its last stop before “American Tune” was likely “The Whole Wide World Around,” with lyrics by Tom Glazer. Peter, Paul and Mary performed the song in a 1965 BBC broadcast. When they recorded it, the title became Biblical: “Because All Men Are Brothers” (Psalm 133:1).

Bach’s melody is relatively simple because hymns must often be sung by a congregation of amateurs. The first phrase is all on-the-beat: “Mi – | LA – Sol – Fa – Mi – | RE (two beats) – Mi   ||. Paul’s genius shows in his reworking of the melody on the words “Man – y’s the | TIME I’ve been mis – tak –  | en ||, which consumes the same number of beats, but syncopates the line, beautifully expressing hesitation and doubt.

It is interesting to note that in a sense, melody is destiny. Roughly translated, the first verse of Hassler’s 1600 love song reads, “My mind is confused over a woman. I am completely mistaken, and my heart is crushed. I have no rest day and night, but great sorrow all the time, always sighing and weeping and in mourning.” Four centuries later, Paul’s lyrics also express sorrow and restless confusion.

Like modern pop songs, many of Bach’s chorales are written in short, two-measure phrases with pickup beats, which makes them fertile ground for friendly thievery. Paul adapted the chorale to modern AABA song form and a hit was born.

Creative challenge: Steal a song. Take a Bach chorale or any classical melody you happen to like and adapt it to a pop song in your favorite genre. Studying the examples above will give you a plethora of ideas, but some of the techniques you might consider include the following:

Play the melody against a variety of preset rhythm tracks found in most electronic keyboards until you find one that “feels right.” Convert a song from 3/4 time to 4/4 time (see “A Lover’s Concerto”). Use a single motif, set it to a rock beat, and step up the tempo (see “Since Yesterday”). Introduce blue notes into the melody. Redo the harmony with power chords or jazzy substitutions.

Other composers worth considering include Chopin, John Dowland, Philip van Wilder, and Anthony Holborne.


Answers: 1 (I), 2 (H), 3 (B), 4 (J), 5 (G), 6 (D), 7 (A), 8 (E), 9 (F), 10 (C)

Editor’s Note: January/February 2017 Issue, Featuring Leonard Cohen