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Covers, Mash-ups and Samples: Who Owns Music?

13/09/2013 16:57 BST | Updated 13/11/2013 10:12 GMT

Before it was released, I heard a cover of Gaga's new single. Let's pause for thought a moment and think about that.

It was a heavy metal version, denounced by the twitterati as a blasphemous offence to metal - not to the performer who'd had her song nicked. Now I'm no little monster, but you've got to feel for any artist who hears a cover of their own song before it's meant to have been heard by anyone. And by the way Gaga, I loved that Bowie vocal styling you did in the first verse.

Then folks started saying it sounded a bit like Girl Gone Wild, the recent Madonna song. And yes it does. So we loop to a couple of years ago when there was that brilliant endless mash up of Born This Way, escalating hysterically via Express Yourself, I Like It, When Love Takes Over, Hungry Like The Wolf, Rio, We Found Love, Dancing On My Own...and and and...

For the anoraks amongst us, it's because Born This Way is a basic tonic-subtonic alternation in the mixolydian mode. Oh yes I did just go there. Pull up Born This Way from out of your itunes playlist, and try singing She Moved Through the Fair over it, or Backstage Queen by the Scorpions, Mamma Mia, You Got a Friend, the X-Factor jingle, and at a push, the theme from Beethoven's Ninth. I love the thought of Ludwig V.B. turning his good ear to the radio somewhere and muttering "Grrrls playing my song".

Which he did of course already when Billy Joel sang, "This time you're miiiine" back in the day; and Chopin did when he heard Take That singing a tune previously made famous by Barry Manilow. Those were straight-up quotes, mind, and I think Billy Joel credits Beethoven on the sleeve for his tune. And of course throughout pop music we have quote upon quote in the form of samples or imitations, which started out as a brilliant innovation of hip hop, but has settled into a fairly transparent production line technique for instant radio play.

So, in this era of endless covers, songs that can be sung over other songs, and questionable use of samples, we could ask, who owns music? (you don't own your itunes collection, remember...) It's not only authors and singers who hear music and say 'they're playing my song!'. Couples have songs (personal note: I think ours might be the tune they play at the end of the BBC World Service), Karaoke Queens have songs, heck, even boxers have songs. And what kind of ownership are we talking about? Simon Cowell may well say he owns Run, as much as Leona Lewis or Snow Patrol, although each in different ways.

Songs - even fragments of songs, like tonic / subtonic whatsits - can become intensely personal to us. In music therapy, songs (or parts of them) can act in a million different ways, behaving as signposts, calls, reminders, markers, material for development, and sometimes as a kind of avatar for people who need that medium to relate to others. We take ownership of music very seriously, not just legal ownership but a person's own sense of 'this music being mine', and what that can mean.

It's not as if music (in music therapy, or pretty much any other way) is ever created in isolation. Even solo improvisers must find themselves responding to coughs, silences and responses in an audience, along with memories and knowledge that revisit them in the moment. Leaving aside the blunt legal side, in music-making, how can you ever decide who owns what?

I always think it's a beautiful reality of music therapy that some of the best music I have ever played has only been heard by one other person, and was in total response to them, however ill or hard to reach they were. It's true, honest. Some of it was brilliant. Music therapy generates music that is utterly co-owned. It is co-authored, co-inspired, co-everything. Even if I found myself playing a chord sequence that sounded like a Gaga song in a music therapy session with you, it wouldn't just be a cover, or a mash-up or a sample. It would be yours, mine, and most excitingly, ours.