The recent New York Times article The Man Musicians Call When Two Tunes Sound Alike by Alex Marshall provides some well-deserved attention to forensic musicologists and has some great potential for related project work in music programs. Marshall explains how many people “stumble into the profession,” but if we include forensic musicology as a way of engaging musically in K-12 programs, perhaps some young people might see it as a viable career pathway. We sometimes assume that students in music programs might want to focus on being performers or music educators. What if they might be most interested in being forensic musicologists? On the other hand, I think we can see people engaging as forensic musicologists in popular culture as a form of participatory culture. Consider the following excerpt from Marshall’s article:
Mr. Bennett says he has been analyzing songs since he was 5, growing up in an ex-mining village in Derbyshire, England — “I was working out Beatles’ tunes with one finger on a piano” — but says he got the skills needed for his work by playing in cover bands. To avoid buying sheet music, he transcribed hits by ear, a skill he still sometimes uses to compare, say, two melodies.
People often hear similarities between songs when no copying has occurred, Mr. Bennett says.
Many people enjoy engaging as forensic musicologists regardless of their careers (or age for that matter). This is particularly the case when they have an interest in the music involved in debates regarding whether a song was “stolen” or is too similar to another song. We can find heated conversations about whether someone stole someone else’s music sprawling across YouTube comments, in the form of YouTube commentary, on Facebook, via Twitter etc. Check it out for yourself and search Google and Google News with phrases such as “Did steal music from?” or “ripped off song.” After sifting through the results you can often find an endless journey through public commentary and debate. Perhaps music educators can build on students’ interest in these debates and help develop their ability to analyze music in ways that are meaningful to them in such contexts.
If you are interested in some potential applications of forensic musicology in music learning and teaching contexts, consider taking a look at my article From musical detectives to DJs: Expanding aural skills and analysis through engaging popular music and culture, which has a section on forensic musicology in the music classroom. Also consider taking a look at some of these earlier posts:
- Blurred Lines, Forensic Musicology, and Music Education
- Inspiration or Appropriation: Impetus for Analysis
- Dead Prez & Jean-Pierre Rampal – A serendipitous sample discovery