In this lesson, students will explore the differences between artists who blatantly rip off others' work and artists whose work is influenced by those who came before them. This is a conversation that remains unsettled, and there is room for nuance and debate. Students will listen to several songs and closely examine them to understand the ways in which artistic works are built upon, are influenced by, and/or are reactions to prior artistic works.
How can you determine if music has been plagiarized?
Students listen to popular song excerpts and make snap judgments about each to decide whether it’s an example of musical influence or plagiarism (“similar or stolen”).
Students watch a series of videos about some famous instances of debate on the influence/plagiarism spectrum. Students discuss their thoughts on the ethics of each case.
Students read and discuss two articles about recent controversies regarding musical influence and plagiarism.
Students use their previous observations and apply them to a new set of listening examples, making observations about what they find similar and influential.
Students select an activity from a Choice Board to demonstrate their understanding. All options require students to explain how their project pertains to musical influence and/or plagiarism and justify the connections they make.
Lesson Slides (linked here)
Student Slides (linked here)
You Be the Judge handout (attached; one copy per group)
Influence Detective handout (attached; one copy per student)
Influence Detective (Teacher Notes) (attached; for teacher use)
Choice Board handout (attached; one copy per student)
“Here’s What Makes a Song a Ripoff, According to the Law” article (linked here)
“What Constitutes Music Plagiarism? The Sam Smith and Robin Thicke Trials” article (linked here)
Classroom computer and audiovisual equipment
Internet-accessible student devices (optional; one per student or one per group)
Introduce the lesson using the linked Lesson Slides. (Click the hyperlinked text to create a copy of the slideshow for your use.) Display slides 3–4 to share the essential question and learning objectives with students.
Go to slide 5 and inform students they are going to watch a video that compares several pairs of songs. Ask students to listen carefully to each pair of songs and make snap judgments about whether the newer song is an example of musical influence or plagiarism (“similar or stolen”).
After each pair of songs, have students indicate their thoughts by raising their left hand if they think the songs are merely similar or their right hand if they think the musical idea was stolen. Repeat this process until you reach the end of the video.
Once students understand the task, play the “Similar or Stolen?” video.
Divide the class into groups of four. Provide each group with a copy of the attached You Be the Judge handout.
Go to slide 6 and inform students they are going to watch a video clip that examines several One Direction songs on the spectrum of musical influence/plagiarism.
Ask students to use the “Notes” column on the handout to record any important points. Within each group, students should pass around the handout so that each group member can write something throughout the video clip.
When students are ready, play the first segment of the video, titled “18 Songs That ‘Rip Off’ Other Hits” (0:00–4:54).
After the video segment, give students time to consider whether there was anything unethical about these One Direction songs’ similarities with other artists’ songs. Ask students to discuss why or why not and whether they think it’s fair. Students then should record their thoughts in the final column on the handout. (It’s okay if not everyone in the group comes to the same conclusion; those who disagree can add their explanation to the handout, too.)
Once students have had enough time to complete the first row of the handout, ask for volunteers to share their group’s thoughts with the whole class.
Have students use one device per group to watch the series of videos embedded in the Student Slides. These three videos cover some famous instances of debate on the influence/plagiarism spectrum.
Student groups should continue using their You Be the Judge handouts to take notes on each case while watching the videos. After each comparison, student groups should discuss their thoughts on the ethics of each case and record their conclusions in the final column.
Inform student groups that they should continue using their You Be the Judge handouts to take notes on each case while watching the following videos. After each comparison, student groups should discuss their thoughts on the ethics of each case and record their conclusions in the final column.
Play the first clip from the following video, titled “7 Songs That ‘Rip Off’ Other Tunes” (2:17–3:40).
Play the second clip from the same video, “7 Songs That ‘Rip Off’ Other Tunes” (11:29–14:07).
For the third clip, play the following video, titled “Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines VS Marvin Gaye - Got to Give it Up” (entire video).
After students have watched the three video clips and completed their handouts, bring the class back together and go to slide 8. Play the concluding portion of the earlier video, “18 Songs That ‘Rip Off’ Other Hits” (13:32–14:07).
After the video, have students summarize their thoughts and share any significant points with the class. Ask students if they have any ideas about how this topic might relate to their work in other classes. Highlight parallels with paraphrasing, summarizing, and plagiarism.
Starting with the groups of four from the previous activity, split each group into two pairs.
Inform students they are going to use the Paired Reading strategy to read two articles about recent controversies regarding musical influence and plagiarism.
Display slide 9 and share the following articles with student pairs:
“What Constitutes Music Plagiarism? The Sam Smith and Robin Thicke Trials”
Each of these articles has pictures at regular intervals that function as natural stopping points. Ask students to pause each time they reach a picture, summarize the preceding text, and swap roles before repeating the process for the next segment of text.
Leave slide 9 on display for the duration of the activity so students can review the process if needed.
Once students have finished reading and summarizing in pairs, bring the class back together and use the POMS: Point of Most Significance strategy for class discussion and closure. Ask students to share the most significant ideas or learning they gained from reading the articles.
Display slide 10 and pass out the attached Influence Detective handout to each student.
Inform students they are going to apply their previous observations and knowledge to a new set of musical examples, starting with the song “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd. After they listen, their task is to compare it to similar songs from the 1980s, paying particular attention to musical similarities and elements of possible influence.
Once students understand the task, play the first 30–60 seconds of “Blinding Lights” (2019) by The Weeknd.
Then, go to slide 11 and play “Take On Me” (1985) by a-ha.
As they listen, have students use their handouts to take notes on any similarities to and differences from “Blinding Lights.”
If needed, you can play a portion of “Blinding Lights” again, alternating between the two songs to give students more time to listen, compare, and make observations.
Go to slide 13 and repeat the comparison process with a different song: “Maniac” (1983) by Michael Sembello.
Go to slide 15 and repeat the process once more with the final song: “Young Turks” (1981) by Rod Stewart.
After students have listened to the three songs from the '80s, have students share their thoughts about how “Blinding Lights” compares to each.
First, ask students to give some examples of musical influence among these songs. Then, ask students whether someone could argue that “Blinding Lights” is an example of musical plagiarism—if so, what would be their reasoning?
Go to slide 17. Ask students to consider a spectrum with “influence” on one end and “plagiarism” on the other. Have students explain where they think “Blinding Lights” belongs and why.
After discussing as a class, revisit the essential question on slide 18. Ask students how they can determine if a piece of music has been plagiarized or merely influenced by other artists.
Inform students they are going to use the Choice Board strategy to select an activity that helps them demonstrate their understanding.
Go to slide 19. Pass out the attached Choice Board handout to each student and review the eight options as a class. See the handout for more detailed descriptions of each activity.
Go to slide 20. Inform students that all projects must include (and students should be prepared to share):
An explanation of how their activity pertains to musical influence and/or plagiarism.
Justification of the connections they made and why they made the choices they did.
An explanation of how they decided between musical influence and plagiarism.
Citations for all the sources they used (some activities will require more external sources than others).
Have students work independently on their projects for the remainder of the class period. Walk around the classroom to observe and answer questions where needed.
A-ha. (2010, January 6). A-ha - Take On Me (Official 4K Music Video) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/djV11Xbc914
Chesterfield, J. (2013, November 1). Robin Thicke - Blurred Lines VS Marvin Gaye - Got to Give it Up [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/ziz9HW2ZmmY
Dahl, K. (2017, March 30). What Constitutes Music Plagiarism? The Sam Smith and Robin Thicke Trials. Lawyer Drummer. https://lawyerdrummer.com/2017/03/music-plagiarism-2/
David Bennett Piano. (2019, November 5). 18 Songs That 'Rip Off' Other Hits [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/FHx3l6Iu47k
David Bennett Piano. (2020, April 14). 7 Songs That 'Rip Off' Other Tunes [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/t4ITk0yrISc
K20 Center. (n.d.). Choice Boards. Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/73
K20 Center. (n.d.). Fist to Five. Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/68
K20 Center. (n.d.). Gallery Walk / Carousel. Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/118
K20 Center. (n.d.). Paired Reading. Strategies. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/194
K20 Center. (n.d.). POMS: Point of Most Significance. https://learn.k20center.ou.edu/strategy/101
Michael Sembello - Topic. (2018, August 10). Maniac [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/6GCNUeTFSbA
Oniell, C. (2021, March 25). Similar or Stolen [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/OJbJXKuNbEE
Oskr96fred 4. (2020, March 15). Blinding Lights vs Young Turks - The Weeknd vs Rod Stewart (80's Mashup) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/rT8nxFZPHAM
Oskr96fred 4. (2020, July 7). a-ha vs The Weeknd - Take On Me vs Blinding Lights (Mashup) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/BuiY57hicks
Stewart, R. (2015, October 5). Young Turks [Video] YouTube. https://youtu.be/KEelZOXjjaw
The Weeknd. (2019, November 28). The Weeknd - Blinding Lights (Official Audio) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/fHI8X4OXluQ
TJA Mashups. (2020, March 23). The Weeknd VS Michael Sembello - Maniacal Lights (Mashup) [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/OEQik5by1DM
Ugwu, R. (2015, March 6). Here's What Makes a Song a Ripoff, According to the Law. Buzzfeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/reggieugwu/what-the-law-says-about-music-plagiarism