Hello <<First Name>>,
I’m delighted to share this July 2016 edition of Arts Awareness E-Newsletter with you. I sincerely hope you find it helpful as you play an active role in all your creative efforts. Please feel free to share it with others who might be interested, and if you know someone who may want to receive this newsletter monthly, please let them know how to sign up through www.artsawareness.com.
Inspiration and Genius - Led Zeppelin, Spirit, Beethoven, and Bernstein
I thought I’d share some thoughts about musical pattern, proportion, and structure in light of the hot topic of alleged music plagiarism that seems to be prevalent nowadays, most recently the case filed against Led Zeppelin and the opening bars of the hit “Stairway to Heaven.” I’m not arguing for or against whether the opening of “Stairway to Heaven” was stolen from Spirit’s song “Taurus.” As many have said, there are similarities—primarily the descending bass line in A minor—but in the end the court determined that the similarities are not substantial enough to prove illegal use.
Rather than continuing a discussion of this issue, which is now closed, I think it’s worthwhile to consider what really makes something like “Stairway to Heaven” such a hit, what makes it stand out when many others may have used similar musical patterns without the same kind of success. While the individual elements—usually melody, harmony, rhythm—are most often considered as isolated from the essence of the work as a whole in these plagiarism cases, what’s especially meaningful and perhaps more relevant is how these elements are used together, how they develop, and what kind of momentum and meaning they create as a result.
Momentum builds success.
~ Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
Inspiration in creative work comes from everything in a person’s inner and outer experience. An important part of truly inspired art is synthesis—the ability to recognize patterns, to make new connections, and to build relationships and imaginative alternatives. Musical pattern in this sense becomes a resource for both the artist and the audience. When you consider the full essence of a work of art and move beyond one or two elements to the totality of the whole, you experience it in a more flowing and expressive way; you simultaneously see, hear, and feel the music as it moves through time.
I’m reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s description of the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 from the Omnibus broadcasts in the 1950s. He mentioned how people have analyzed the famous first four notes, trying to determine their meaning and why they form such a powerful musical grouping. His explanation speaks to the genius of putting musical patterns together, developing them, and moving them through an entire composition in just the right way to create a masterpiece.
To achieve this kind of “rightness,” all of the musical elements can be used—melody, harmony rhythm, tempo, meter, texture, dynamics, emphasis, repetition, and in some cases lyrics, to name a few—are organized to express meaning.
It’s the way those things are put together—and the relationships among them—that makes the difference and results in a work that impacts you with a compelling message.
It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.
~ Jean-Luc Godard
In the case of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Taurus,” both songs were created and performed by skilled artists, yet it’s this same kind of “rightness” Bernstein talks about in his lecture that ultimately made the difference in lasting public appeal. Each individual decision made in the process of creating or performing art involves various decisions and groupings of elements that form patterns. Artists shape these wide-ranging elements into patterns that set up tension and release effects. Ultimately, the work with its points of tension and release create varied intensities of momentum. A work of art begins to take shape as artists use various techniques to organize and manipulate these elements. Each decision serves as a building block, creating momentum that ultimately leads to the full realization of the work as a whole. Context and perspective are important to the artistic process. Context—form and proportion, the use of space and time, and pattern and rhythm—consists of everything that is a part of the bigger picture.
When you focus primarily on the parts, you miss a clear understanding the whole. With a primary focus on the whole, you miss the collaboration and complexity of the parts. The effort then becomes one of seeing both the parts and the whole at the same time. Music plagiarism litigation is difficult. It requires thorough musical analysis and a deep understanding of the composition process. On the one hand, legitimate rights must be protected, while at the same time the innovative use of the basic building blocks of musical materials must also be upheld.
Creativity takes courage.
~ Henri Matisse