Forensic musicologist Joe Bennett spends much of his time uncovering some of the more costly mysteries of the musical world, analysing compositions and working out whether they are original or have been copied. His job is to advise music publishers, advertising agencies, composers, songwriters, lawyers, or the courts, on the extent to which one piece of music is similar to another.
Bennett’s speciality is pop music – he is also professor of popular music at Bath Spa University – and he is one of just a handful of forensic musicologists working in the UK.
“I am asked to analyse a piece of music, pull it apart and work out what notes are in it, and also look at some of the more technical aspects, like what does the musical waveform look like when analysed, what sounds does the piece use and how might they contribute to similarity. But the question everybody wants to ask us is has copying taken place,” he says.
“With all music in the developed world being somebody’s intellectual property, there is big money riding on who gets paid for various uses of a piece of music.”
Some of his work involves disputes, where one party has accused another of copying their music. He is sworn to secrecy when it comes to his clients, but he has a long list of well-known pop musicians and music publishers who call on him to help clear up battles over originality. The majority of his clients, though, are advertising agencies heading off potential litigation.
“Say they do something in the style of Motown for the soundtrack to an ice cream advert. They will call me and say ‘is this just a generic Motown-style tune or have we inadvertently copied a real Motown song’,” he says.
“That is a very complicated question to answer, because you are trying to second guess someone else’s creative activity. So there is an element of detective work in there, looking at the available evidence, which is nearly always just the music itself.”
Bennett has been developing the necessary analytical skills for the job since he was a child. At four or five, he could often be found plinking out Beatles’ tunes with one finger on the family piano, or wandering around incessantly singing pop songs. In his teens he taught himself to play the guitar. “I played in lots of bands, mostly covers bands, so I would work out, often in real time from the radio, how the chords to a particular song went so I could play them.” He went on to do a BA in music at the University of Northumbria, and worked through his studies by playing in working men’s clubs around the north east. He graduated in 1991 and taught guitar for a few years, before getting a job as music editor at Total Guitar magazine in 1994. “It was really my most intensive training because for four years I was transcribing guitar music from the audio every day, listening to riffs and guitar solos and working out how they go. ”
In 1998, Bennett decided to go back into music education and became head of music at Bath College, moving to Bath Spa University in 2001 where he began work on his PhD, which involved investigating creativity in songwriters. “I was fascinated by the process that collaborative songwriters use when they close the door and walk out three hours later with a finished demo. I interviewed, co-wrote and observed for five years and that got me really interested in the idea of originality.”
His academic research introduced him to forensic musicology. “There are two things you can own in music: the composition and the sound recording of a work. The composition in the UK is dealt with by the music publishers association, and they contacted me a few years back because I was an academic working in the field of popular music, and analysing and writing about popular music. They were looking for people who could advise their members – music publishers who own or administrate the rights on behalf of songwriters – to help advise them in matters relating to protecting their work from infringement or copying.”
Although he fits his forensic work around his day job, he knows others doing the job full time. While forensic musicologists can offer an expert opinion in court, their job is to uncover the truth rather than argue the case for a client.
“A forensic musicologist, as I am always keen to point out to clients, is not a legal professional; we advise legal professionals on musical specifics.” If a client has copied then the job of the forensic musicologist is to demonstrate that. That goes for when that copying is not intentional too. Cryptomnesia – mistaking a buried memory for an original idea – is a big problem in creativity, says Bennett. Think George Harrison, who was successfully sued for subconsciously plagiarising the Chiffons’ He’s So Fine when writing his song My Sweet Lord .
Strong analytical skills and a good foundation in music are essential to the job. “The job doesn’t require a PhD [in music], but I think I am probably better at analysing music as a result of mine,” he says. “You develop research and analytical skills and, perhaps most importantly, the objectivity you need to listen to music without having an opinion on whether it’s good or bad, but simply whether it’s the same or different.”
You also need an extremely wide knowledge of music past and present and, he says: “You have to be a bit of a geek. I am always analysing music in my head – you can never turn it off. As soon as the radio comes on I’m thinking ‘is that in G minor? What tempo is that likely to be? How many bars are in that verse?’ If you just listen to music for an uplifting feeling it’s probably not for you. You need to be the kind of person who is prepared to take things apart brick by brick and see how they are built.”
Source: The Guardian