Musical Calculus

I’d like to use today’s entry to pose a question inspired by Mark’s comment on my last post.

“The “derivative is bad” argument is silly. Pretty much everything in art, music, science, social/political thought, etc has prior art “influences” and thus can be seen as derivative or reactionary.”

Yes Mark, that is a fair comment – and one well backed up by the Ecclesiastes passage you referred us to. Nothing is new under the sun. However, that does not give musicians open slather to run around stealing other people’s style. Intellectual property laws ensure that you can’t get away with simply stealing another person’s idea, and doing so in the realms of art, music, science and social thought is generally frowned upon. It’s called plagiarism. You don’t see wannabe painters out there recreating the Mona Lisa. If music is art then some originality is required. When seven bands release seven songs with the same chord progression and the all wear the same clothes, and claim the same influences – bands 2 through to 7 of that group are redundancies – unless 2 is a tribute band with a clever pun as a name.

There’s an old song lyric – and you can google it if you like – that says “if everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other,” which is pretty much the point of the “derivative is bad argument” – if all music sounded the same we would get tired of listening to it. Therefore derivative music is bad.

I would also make a distinction between “derived” and “influenced” – derived work is something that could only be reached by copying something – there is no art to that. So that step in Mark’s syllogism is a non sequitur.

In the words of someone who played an important role in the artistic movement – or in the words of some sort of manifesto – Vive Le Difference…

And now… on the subject of the French and Revolutions – check out the newest, most coolest thing on the internet – askaninja – actually it’s not new, only recently discovered…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56vcMhVv_WM]

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

47 thoughts on “Musical Calculus”

  1. It was only after posting under that title that I realised there’s a further layer of irony – Calculus was apparently discovered by two mathematicians at the same time – in different corners of the globe – proof that there truly is nothing new under the sun.

  2. Robespierre eats cake! very funny stuff.. now that’s art!

    You’re right when you say that someone copying the Mona Lisa is not creating art, but there were numerous painters all painting in that style at the time.
    It’s true that most of the great artsits and musicians took influences and developed the ideas further; Beethoven is a classic example of this, taking the classical style and enlarging it and really pushing into romantic ideals. However, this is always the case. Mozart was not so much a developer of style, but rather a master of it. No one went to see a mozart gig getting a shock at what they heard (unlike Beethoven), but he mastered the current style to a point where his much of his music is almost sheer perfection*. In fact, often you will hear great similarities in the music of Mozart and Haydn, and while Haydn is no slouch, his operas pale in comparison to Mozart. (maybe it helped that Mozart had an excellent librettist in Da Ponte?)

    Does this mean that all these boy bands are ok? Heck no! The real problem with pop music is that it’s dumb. It’s like having a painting with a yellow panel, a red panel and a blue panel. It’s not hard to understand. It’s basic and simple. Good art is not basic, and is not always easy to understand. Mozart doesn’t repeat three chords over and over. It has intricacy and complexity.

    *often in later operas, there are large boring sections between the good bits – take Puccini for example) but I am yet to hear one boring note in Le Nozze di Figaro.

  3. You mention intellectual property laws… such a good idea at the time, but sadly now the antithesis of their original intent ie. encourage creativity while still enhancing the public domain of thought and art. Copyright extends 70 years after the death of the artist/author, longer if the Music/Movie industries are involved. Patents last 20 years in a world where companies fold in 5 after still making megabucks.

    Copying and taking credit for someone else’s work is bad. Building on another person’s idea isn’t, particularly if you’re giving them due credit – which isn’t necessarily financial. Newton (one of those calculus guys) I think is the source of this quote I’ll mangle “if I have seen further than others, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”, but then, he wasn’t part of the recording or commercial biotech industry.

    Some US law professors have written a comic book Bound By Law – an interesting take on copyright in the US film documentary industry.

    They make the point that intellectual property laws were intended to be an egg – provide a thin shell around a rich public domain.

    These days the shell is excessively thick, and the public domain increasingly small.

    Intellectual property laws are a good thing, at least in intent. Their implementation now is tending toward propping up stagnant business models, and stifling creativity and innovation rather than promoting it.

  4. As for derivative being copying something, and therefore bad, not all copying, even blatant copying, is negative. Sure, blatant copying and not making any distinction from the source is not making any contribution to culture.

    If you add window dressing to make people think you’re different, which often works (because the general public isn’t taught to critically analyse art/thought/media as well as they think they are), you still aren’t making much contribution, other than in creative marketing culture. (You may actually be promoting the original idea more than the source could ever have done so it may be of some benefit, but that’s another argument – cf Steamboat Bill Jr & Steamboat Willie)

    If you copy, but do so in a way that creates a distinction, it is still copying, but does add to the overall cultural pool. Which echoes your call to “Vive la diffĂ©rence”.

    eg The Shrek films blatantly used scenes etc from many sources, mainly firing a shot across Disney’s “creative guidelines/restrictions” bow, but still were able to make a significant contribution IMHO in film-making, story-telling to multiple audience levels, and animation. The final transformation scene in shrek 1 is copied from Beauty and the Beast. The Snow White singing bird scene is beatifully warped, and Donkey is thrown into Eeyore poses more than once. In just the opening sequence of Shrek 2, fans of the Street Fighter video games of the 90s would recognise Chun-Li’s spinning kick and Ken & Ryu’s punch moves, and most people would recognise the Spiderman kiss.

    The US may claim some of this is “parody”, which is within their “fair use” provisions of copyright (Australia doesn’t have this).

    Examples of poor “copying/timing” – the cycles of competing disaster films eg Dante’s Peak/Volcano, Armageddon, Deep Impact, etc

  5. I’m pretty sure parody is actually protected under our copyright laws… I’d have to check that out, but I’m sure it came up in one of my law lectures.

    I’m all for referencing pop culture – i think there’s an art to it. Andy Warhol made a career out of it.

    Shouldn’t you be working Mark?

  6. Ha! Quote ‘shouldn’t you be working…’ Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

  7. haha… i was wondering what askaninja meant before i pressed play only to find out it was actually ask a ninja. i also thought you were talking about that stuff on your teeth when you said calculus until I opened the comments.

  8. Robespierre eats cake! very funny stuff.. now that’s art!

    You’re right when you say that someone copying the Mona Lisa is not creating art, but there were numerous painters all painting in that style at the time.
    It’s true that most of the great artsits and musicians took influences and developed the ideas further; Beethoven is a classic example of this, taking the classical style and enlarging it and really pushing into romantic ideals. However, this is always the case. Mozart was not so much a developer of style, but rather a master of it. No one went to see a mozart gig getting a shock at what they heard (unlike Beethoven), but he mastered the current style to a point where his much of his music is almost sheer perfection*. In fact, often you will hear great similarities in the music of Mozart and Haydn, and while Haydn is no slouch, his operas pale in comparison to Mozart. (maybe it helped that Mozart had an excellent librettist in Da Ponte?)

    You mention intellectual property laws… such a good idea at the time, but sadly now the antithesis of their original intent ie. encourage creativity while still enhancing the public domain of thought and art. Copyright extends 70 years after the death of the artist/author, longer if the Music/Movie industries are involved. Patents last 20 years in a world where companies fold in 5 after still making megabucks

    Ha! Quote ‘shouldn’t you be working…’ Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

    …your right. there is nothing original out there…people just copy everyone else!…

  9. IIRC Aussie copyright laws don’t have an equivalent to the broad US “fair use” doctrine.

    Cth Copyright Act provides narrow categories for fair dealing: research or study, reporting news, criticism or review.

    They have added home VCR/DVR timeshifting I’m pleased to note.

  10. Mark,

    I’m pretty sure you can get away with satire as “criticism” or “review” – I think there’s a couple of test cases out there but I’m not sure what they were called so I can’t direct you to them.

  11. This blog is Boring!! You are no longer talking about nathan in townsville but about music and copyright issues.

  12. I aggree with bbb (by the way is that B.B. or beebs in townsville undercover). This blog is boring. See nath – this is what i was talking about – too intelligent. I don’t want to go on the net to discuss deep issues. Bring back the nudie run! C’mon CB, you can do it!

  13. You could always hijack Nathan’s blog yourself Mel. I’ve done it a couple of times and have no problems with being bored by the content…

  14. In any case, I do agree with you Nathan that there is value in making a distinct/unique/original contribution.

    My point of contention was a semantic one. I disagree with a categorical “derivative == copying” and “copying always == bad/poor contribution” approach. It may often be so, but for the reasons posited, it can equally be an essential component in creative expression.

  15. Welcome back CB!
    The more comments you and Miriam add the better. You could give Mark a lesson or two in brief comments.

  16. Leave Mark alone – at least he signs his name to things – and thinks before he types…

    Given that it’s my blog – the comments are generally for my benefit – I appreciate Mark’s input.

    If you don’t like it, go start your own blog.

  17. Ours has character – it’s not hard to have a clean bathroom when two thirds of your household are obsessive compulsive.

  18. Correction – three quarters of your household are OCD – or have OCD… unless there are more of you out there?

  19. Apparently pulling faces is a winner.

    But with three sisters and a growing legion of fans out there I need to be good at “making a girl feel good about themselves”

  20. Yes I know a 3 year old besotted with your pulling faces.
    Lucky that it works for 3 year olds…

  21. When you can think of a method that works for people who are umm, almost 22, let me know…

    Short of being charming and devillishly handsome, I’ve got those bases covered already…

  22. Roses are read,
    novels are too,
    I’m Schizophrenic,
    and so am I…

    Although technically multiple personality disorder is not schizophrenia is it…

  23. Yes. I never mean to offend anyone… it just happens some times because people are too stupid to understand what I’m saying…

  24. ummm.. no one, that would be against my stricly inoffensive policy of not offending people.

    I also never ever say or do anything politically incorrect.

  25. Nope, so in summary… I’m devilishly handsome, charming, sensitive, inoffensive… did I mention devilishly handsome, oh yes, I did…

  26. “Yes I know a 3 year old besotted with your pulling faces. “

    Lol. I swear that is half my Sunday’s entertainment watching those two.

    Oh, and thanks for the introduction to Askaninja Nathan. Brilliant stuff :D

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