Provoked by the title? It’s one of the best ways to harness attention…
However, I need to offer one caveat right off – copyright infringement will not be considered in this post, but that would be (in my opinion) the only technical musical “theft” that can occur.
With that said, we proceed.
As we discussed Elvis’ alleged “theft” of previously existing music in class today, I noticed there was one perspective missing: that of a musician. There are very few of us in the class who play an instrument or perform music and so I felt this perspective would be valuable.
What I am going to attempt to describe is probably one of those things musicians will understand immediately and non-musicians may have to ponder for a bit. Therefore, I will attempt to be as academic and descriptive as possible in trying to communicate what is mostly a nebulous creative process.
Music is a language. To be proficient at it (which I do not claim to be) one must be able to write it, speak it, and comprehend it.
The writing idea is simple. Musical theory has distinct rules and mathematical patterns for its construction just as a language has grammar, mechanics, and syntax.
To speak it, one takes up an instrument or vocal lessons and through practice can refine the craft just as grade school students learn the sounds of letters and the meanings of words.
Linguistic descriptivists argue that language evolves and changes – new words form, new sentences are made, new dialects arise. These are all derivative of language conventions that came before. “Ain’t” is a combination of the words ‘am’ and ‘not’ and a bit of slurring, but it is accepted in many dialects.
There is no other way to learn how to write and speak music other than to hear it. It is an auditory discipline. Musicians refine their craft by mastering artists and styles that came before them; by learning and comprehending what has already been musically said. It is a creative individual who takes something from before and adds something unique to it.
My premise is a simple one: music is not stolen – it is analyzed and mastered in its current state, then evolved, grown, and crafted by musicians seeking to find their place in the creative field. Imitation is the greatest compliment. Musicians channel their inspirations, their models, those they admire most, when creating their own music – whether they mean to or not. ALL music is an evolved form of something that came before.
I will not deny the ownership aspect of identity, but I think that there is an important distinction to be made between the musician and the industry. No musician is a thief, but an industry can choose to promote and hide as it sees fit.
A musical ear can hear more than just appropriated genres in the Elvis videos we watched today. The musical prowess is in the synthesis.
From the perspective of a musician, music is not taken from one to serve another. It is used in pursuit of an alternate creative mission.