How do forensic musicologists know whether Michael Jackson is really singing "Breaking News"?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 12 2010 5:59 PM

What's a Forensic Musicologist?

Someone who can tell whether Michael Jackson is really the one singing in his new song.

Michael Jackson in 2005.
Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's estate reassured skeptics this week that the singer of the new song "Breaking News" really is the King of Pop, saying that two "forensic musicologists" have confirmed the track's authenticity. What's a forensic musicologist?

Someone who listens to music really, really closely.  To determine if a recording of a singer's voice is real, audio experts look at elements of the singer's tone, diction, and range. (It's the musical version of what they do when there's a new recording of Osama Bin Laden.) Just as every person has a unique fingerprint, everyone's voice has a distinct timbre, which can be measured by examining the shape of the sound waves it produces and the relative emphases of its overtones. (Whenever you sing a note, you also produce notes—or overtones—an octave higher, a fifth above that, and so on. Different voices—and different instruments—produce different kinds of overtones.) It's therefore possible to find harmonic differences between two recordings that might not be easily perceptible otherwise. Some singers pronounce words in distinctive ways, too, which yields to side-by-side comparisons. A singer's tone also changes when he's stretching to reach the upper or lower limits of his vocal range. An analyst can therefore tell if the singer's range in one song doesn't match the range in another—or if it appears that his singing has been digitally modified to be higher or lower. Other sound qualities like vibrato also help authenticate a track.

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More often, forensic musicologists are called upon to determine whether a particular song qualifies as copyright infringement. When a hip-hop artist samples a song without permission, for example, the plaintiff will usually bring in an expert to show how similar the sample is to the original. Sometimes the similarities are obvious to the listener. Other times the expert might perform a "wave form analysis"—which turns the samples into visual display—to prove that the tracks are identical. This is especially helpful if the original track is somehow distorted or obscured in the new song. (Some music producers will add sounds to deliberately mask the original sample.) In 2004, an appeals court ruled that artists have to pay for every sample of music they borrow, no matter how small or unrecognizable. The song that sparked the lawsuit, N.W.A.'s "100 Miles and Runnin'," borrowed a three-note riff from a Funkadelic song, which had been lowered in pitch and looped.

Courts also rely on musicologists to determine whether a compositionviolates copyright laws by using a pre-existing melody or recognizable string of notes. (Composing a similar tune is different from copying and pasting an old riff into a new song, as described above.) The test is whether a composition borrows a "significant amount" of an existing song. Of course, what's "significant" depends on context. The two biggest factors are lyrics and melody. For example, the word "yesterday" isn't copyrighted, but if you sang that word the same way that Paul McCartney sings it on "Yesterday," he might sue you.

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Explainer thanks Matthew Harris of Harris Musicology and Alexander Stewart of the University of Vermont.

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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