Taurus Butted Out

     Everyone feels entitled to an opinion about music, whether they know anything about it or not.
     Other things like that are God, immigration, and other people’s behavior.
     Of course everyone is entitled to an opinion about music.
     But no one should be allowed to take millions of dollars from one band and give the money to another band, when everyone involved — except the hit band — appears to be musically illiterate.
     As a musician, I was glad to see the jury decide this week that Led Zeppelin did not steal “Stairway to Heaven” from the rock band Spirit.
     There is nothing copyrightable in Spirit’s song “Taurus” that can be stolen.
     Spirit’s entire song is a 400-year-old musical cliché: a chromatically descending bass line under a static chord.
     Sebastian Bach used it. Mozart used it. Beethoven used it. The Beatles used it in the intro to “Michelle.” Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart used it in “My Funny Valentine.”
     Led Zeppelin used the cliché as the intro to a nice little song from which they have received — if you can believe The New York Times — $562 million in royalties.
     Wow! I’d like some of that action. But I have no right to it. Neither does Spirit, or their late songwriter, or anyone else.
     This “copyright” case never should have gone to trial.
     It was a money grab, pure and awful.
     Don’t believe me?
     Play “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” one after the other, as Spirit’s attorney did for the jury. Then play “Michelle” and “My Funny Valentine,” as Spirit’s attorney did not do.
     Hear any similarities there?
     When I studied musical arranging at the Berklee School of Music 40 years ago, Berklee had an upper-division arranging course called “Line Clichés.” It taught musical clichés that work.
     For instance, if you are writing a film score, and nothing is happening on screen, you can write a chromatically descending line under a static chord. Or you could ascend chromatically, if something is about to happen.
     If someone — God help her — should be sentenced to listen to soft rock radio for eight hours a day, she would hear this musical cliché so many times she would pay money to make it go away.
     Spirit’s “song” is not a song at all: It’s a musical cliché.
     Led Zeppelin used the cliché as an intro to a nice little song, with a tune and words and everthang.
     Is Led Zeppelin’s song worth half a billion dollars?
     Beats me.
     But that’s not the point.
     The point is that Led Zeppelin wrote a song.
     Spirit just recycled a musical cliché.
     Half of the rock and roll songs ever written in the history of the world are in the keys of E, A, D or G — because those are easy guitar keys.
     So what’s next? The Rolling Stones suing half the world for every rock song ever written in the key of E?
     Robert Johnson would roll over in his grave, at the crossroads.
     Now, if you want to hear a musical genius, listen to Charlie Parker, and his two dozen tunes based the chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

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