Stop Me If You Heard This Before: The Case of Similarly Sounding Songs

by BROCK KOLLER

Stop me if you heard this one before.

And by ‘this’ I mean a particular song on the radio, so you may stop me even sooner than you think.

It feels like more and more these days, tunes on your radio or your Spotify playlist sound similar to ones from the music vault.

Take a listen to 5 Seconds of Summer’s ‘Hey Everybody!’

Now, listen to Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf.’

It probably took no longer than five seconds of 5SOS’ mega-hit for your brain to trigger its 1980s’ doppelganger.

But, the boys of the ‘not-a-boy-band band’ thought they created their own original piece of art, as they told Howard Stern late last year on SiriusXM.  

Stern: You actually had Duran Duran, you gave him writing credit, right?

5SOS: We wrote this with Joel Madden from Good Charlotte. Starting playing the riff, and he started playing the melody, and we’re like ‘yeah that’s cool, let’s go with that’ and then everyone was like ‘yeah, it’s Duran Duran.’

Stern: It’s a good song. I love the song.

5S0S: This was like two weeks later. I swear no one said it to me. When I showed them the song, they said ‘it was a great song, should be a single.’ Like a month later, then everyone was like ‘hang on a second.’

Stern: But that can happen, right? You have so many musical influences, you grow listening and it can sound like one other song. 

5SOS: It’s like every melody has been song before. It’s just a matter of not trying to get sued now.

Robin Quivers: Did you guys capitulate and say just give him credit?

5SOS: We tried to come up with something else, but to be honest, this is the best melody.

In this interview, 5 Seconds of Summer said one of the most profound phrases concerning the music industry these days: ‘It’s like every melody has been song before. It’s just a matter of not trying to get sued now. ‘

Robin Thicke and Pharrell may know a thing or two about that. They were ordered last March to pay $7.4 million by a jury who decided their song ‘Blurred Lines’ was too similar to 1977’s Marvin Gaye hit ‘Got to Give It Up.’

As the Hollywood Reporter put it, “In what might now be the landmark legal controversy over songcraft, the jury decided that Thicke and Williams infringed…and had to pay $4 million in damages (essentially accepting the Gaye family's contention that if "Got to Give It Up" was properly licensed, the family would have gotten a 50 percent cut of the $8 million in "Blurred Lines" publishing revenue). On top of that, the two songwriters had to hand back nearly $3.4 million of their profits on "Blurred Lines." The verdict will echo through the ages.”

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the previous record high copyright infringement suit was the 1994 Michael Bolton/Isley Brothers case. Bolton had to pay $5.4 million for using elements of the Isley Brothers' "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" in his own song titled "Love Is a Wonderful Thing.”

While testifying, to defend himself, Thicke sought out to prove that many different songs have similar chord patterns. So much so, he performed on piano a medley of U2's "With or Without You," The Beatles' "Let It Be," Alphaville's "Forever Young," Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" and Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," going from one song to another.

In an interview with the New York Times, Thicke said, "I know the difference between inspiration and theft. I’m constantly inspired, but I would never steal. And neither would Pharrell."

The dispute is headed to appellate court.

A case that never went to court was the late David Bowie and the band Queen suing rapper Vanilla Ice in 1990 for his hit ‘Ice Ice Baby,’ claiming it was a rip off of their 1981 hit ‘Under Pressure.’

At first, Vanilla Ice said the two songs were different. Remember the ‘ding-ding-ding’ approach?

However there was a change of heart and Vanilla Ice settled the case out of court, resulting in payment to Bowie and Queen and additional credit on the song.

In 2006, he told the Iowa State Daily, it was indeed the same exact bass line.

“Well, it is. It is the exact same one; that's why I paid them $4 million. Are you talking about that interview I did like a million years ago that I was like saying, "Mine goes 'ding ding ding dingy ding dink,' and theirs goes 'ding ding ding, ding ding?'" No, dude, that was a joke. That was a laugh and a joke. Yeah, I paid them. I sampled that song straight out. That's why when you read the credits on "Ice Ice Baby" now it says Freddie Mercury and David Bowie, because they're on there.”

But whereas Vanilla Ice readily admits his song sounded exactly like another, sometimes the similarities are just touched upon in passing in your personal life, on social media, or on websites and nothing is ever made of it.

For instance, in Maroon 5’s #1 hit ‘Sugar,’ there’s a section of the song that is very reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It,' but there has been no court battle to speak of.

Now, I could try to explain why these songs sound the same using stick figures, Sudoku charts, and rare Microsoft Word fonts, but, thankfully, the website HitSongsDeconstructed.com does a much better job describing the parallels using actual music vocabulary.

“While it’s not a carbon copy, there are key similarities between the two,” the website says. “Both Sugar and Beat It possess a similar chorus structure, consisting of three distinct “parts.” …Both songs feature the lyric “show” at/near the beginning of Part Y…Both songs feature stressed (prolonged) lyrics at the beginning of the first three phases…Both songs also possess a similar melodic range and follow an up/down/up/down flow to a degree…Both songs possess a similar rhythmic flow, consisting primarily of an eighth-note delivery with strategically placed rests and prolonged/stressed notes as detailed above…In addition to Part Y within the chorus, some of [Adam] Levine’s “vocal flourishes” found throughout the song are directly influenced by Michael Jackson.   Prime examples are the “ttt – ah – ah” vocal at the end of the intro, and the high-pitch “oouu!” within the outro.”

Told you there was something there.

For a more in-depth explanation, I strongly suggest you checking out their website. It’s great support for when you tell your friend, ‘See, I wasn’t wrong! It does sound like it!’

Heck, even MTV had ‘Sugar’ on their list of the 6 Best Michael Jackson Soundalike Songs from 2015.

And how about Taylor Swift's new single 'Out of the Woods.' The chorus is extremely familiar to any fan of the 90s pop duo Savage Garden. Chica cherry cola anyone?

As OK! Magazine put it,  "Taylor’s second song from 1989—though not the second single, apparently—is about a relationship that’ll inevitably fall apart. Everyone thinks the tune, co-written by fun.’s Jack Antonoff, is about her short-lived winter romance with Harry Styles so we’re going to go with that. What no one has talked about yet though is the fact that the chorus sounds like the chorus to Savage Garden’s “Cherry Cola.” Are we right or are we right?"

The actual song title is 'I Want You,' but that's not the point. The point is we've heard it before...or something like it.

And how about Twenty One Pilots' hit 'Tear In My Heart?' 

Sounds like The Darkness' 'I Believe In A Thing Called Love,' right? Right? At least in the beginning. I know, right! 

Don't just take my word for it, I found at least one person on Twenty One Pilot's Sub-Reddit who agrees!

She writes, "Am I the only one who thinks this sounds slightly like The Darkness - I Believe In A Thing Called Love in the beginning?? I feel like I've heard this but just can't put a finger on it. Also here's the link to that song, so you can compare."

No need for a link, Redditor, it's right here on my blog! Compare. Contrast. Scratch your head in total amazement.  

But why is this the case? Where's Hitsongsdeconstructed when you need them?

One more recent entry into the ‘hey, I’ve heard this before’ archives is Shawn Mendes’ ‘Stitches.’ Now, its twin-of-sorts is a bit more obscure than the other main stream pop hits mentioned in this article.

The similarity happens when Shawn sings, ‘Got a feeling that I’m going under, but I know that I’ll make it out alive.’

For me – now this is just for me as far I can tell – haven't checked the Mendes sub-Reddit, yet - but it sounds very similar to a part of O.A.R.’s song ‘Almost Easy’ from their King album.

The part of their song goes, ‘What a feeling when it takes control of you, everything you need is back tenfold.’

It may just be that both lyrics have the word ‘feeling’ and the syllable count is almost the same, (10/10 to 11/9) but every time I hear it, I feel like I’m hearing the other song just for that moment.  

Is 5SOS right? Has every melody been sung before? 

Or is that I can’t help myself to think that every song on the radio must sound like another song I’ve heard before.

Yep.

That sounds about right.