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.