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Is that song like this song? Quick, call a forensic musicologist!

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had to pay $7.3 million to Marvin Gaye's estate. (Photo by CC Images, Melissa Rose)
LISTEN: Does that song sound like this song? Quick, call a forensic musicologist!

In 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found liable for copyright infringement after Marvin Gaye’s family said their song “Blurred Lines” was a direct ripoff of Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up.” A jury awarded Gaye’s family $7.3 million.

When a case like this comes up, the court calls upon a forensic musicologist.

“A forensic musicologist is someone who analyzes popular music,” Dr. Joe Bennett explains.

Bennett is a musicologist at the Boston Conservatory at the Berklee College of Music.

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“Usually they’re used by legal professionals or ad agencies, TV companies, music companies or artists to try and ascertain the similarity between any two musical works,” he said. “And to infer the extent to which the second one has any copied material from the first one.”

Dr. Bennett did not work on the “Blurred Lines” case, but he has his own opinion.

“It wasn’t an appropriate or fair verdict,” Bennett said. “I took a look at it after the news story broke and just transcribed the music. Looked at the bass line, looked at the famous cowbell part. They are similar mid-temp, disco-style groove but I couldn’t find a single note that’s been really obviously copied. So it does bring into question, in that particular case, what do we mean by copying from a song? Can you copy a vibe?”

The work of a forensic musicologist

So how do you determine copyright infringement on a song? How close is too close?

“Well, this is the fundamental question that we’re dealing with,” Bennett said. “It’s always a threshold and it’s always a judgement call of sorts. Trying to figure out how likely is it that two composers could have separately and independently, most importantly, have come up with a similar music idea. Which does happen, there are only so many things you can do within a three to four minute popular song with a few chords.”

“But the likelihood of coincidental similarity obviously diminishes the longer the note chain gets,” he said. “So the more notes in your melody, the less likely it is that a future melody will be coincidentally similar to it.”

But Dr. Bennett says there is no set-in-stone guidelines; no certain number of notes you can copy and get away with. If someone sues, each case is evaluated independently by a forensic musicologist.

He mostly works with people making TV ads, who send their jingles and songs his way to make sure they’re not going to get in trouble.

“So in the simplest cases when somebody says, ‘I believe that this song is a copy of the melody that I wrote,’ then you just transcribe the music and you look at the sheet music and you figure out how many notes line up,” Bennett said. “Of course, in many cases it’s not that simple because what if someone makes a little tweak to that melody or just slightly changes some aspect of the performance or the arrangement. You do get these cases where the similarity is apparent in the record, but it’s not apparent, necessarily, in the composition.”

That was the case with “Blurred Lines.”

Dr. Bennett notes that often it’s a case of accidental copying. We listen to so much music, it’s tough not to accidentally regurgitate a section of a piece of music buried inside of our brain.

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