Arts Blog

Sampling Classical Works in Modern Songs

To some, classical music may seem like something of the past, yet many artists have sampled classical music, bringing the music to the present.

Yet, the issue remains of where one song ends and another begins. It is always smart to give credit to musicians for inspiring a song.

Sampling is the process of taking one snippet of a song and using it to form a new song. Key elements of a song, such as a melody or a beat, can be manipulated to form a new song. The new song can distort the elements of the old song, blurring the lines as to where one artist’s work becomes another.

Sampling is a gray area. Individuals are allowed to use another artist’s music as the basis for their own, without asking for permission. But if the music is too similar it can go to trial. Or the parties settle the case beforehand. Of the few issues that have gone to court, less have ended in victory for the artist.

A way around getting sued for sampling by copyright infringement is the United States fair use law, which allows copying from copyrighted work for reason of criticism, commentary, and re-contextualization.

A clear cut option is to use music from the creative commons, which is an online portal where musicians have chosen to release their music under the Creative Commons License. Anyone who uses music from CC can sample as long as it is okay under the CC license it’s under. Some tracks are listed under CC noncommercial license, which means the artist can use the music but cannot use it for commercial purposes.

One of the earliest debates over music copyright was with Czech composer Dvorák whose melodies from his New World Symphony were taken from Native and African American

folk songs. This brought up the issue of race. His symphony was written in the 19th century. The verdict is unknown.

It is one thing to be inspired by an artist and create artistic work from said artist, but it is another to use the work of another artists’ for your own song. One of Robin Thicke’s songs, When I Get You Alone is based off of Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven which is sampled from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Mozart, one of the most well-known composers, has been sampled over 113 times. The rapper Ludacris sampled Mozart’s Dies Irae in his 2002 single Coming 2 America. David Bowie also sampled Mozart’s Magic Flute Overture in his song See Emily Play. I wonder how he’d feel knowing his work inspired contemporary songs.

Sometimes, a sampling case ends in victory for an artist. Eric Carmen’s All By Myself and Never Going To Fall In Love Again ripped off Sergei Rachmanioff, a Russian composer. Because the work was not in the public domain, Rachmanioff’s family sued and now gets 12 percent of royalties.

One such band had one hit single and subsequently broke up. Apollo 100 used Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring as inspiration for their instrumental pop song. There is a fine line between plagiarism and inspiration.

The rapper Nas sampled Beethoven’s Fur Elise theme and turned it into a hit rap.

While the issue of sampling is hazy, more artists are giving the original composers recognition via songwriting credits, which help the issue. In contrast, it is irksome when an artist rips off another artist’s work in an obvious and uncredited way.

With the popularity of sampling, listeners are becoming more curious as to where they’ve heard a piece, which gives the previous artist more credibility and relevancy.

Sampling continues to be a trend, and old songs get a rebirth. It will be interesting to see how the trend continues, and if new and clearer laws emerge.


Works Cited


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Intern: Summer 2017


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