How the tune of Stay With Me is pretty much identical to Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down
Update: 2 months after I wrote this post, Sam Smith quietly agreed to pay Tom Petty royalties as a co-writer of “Stay With Me”. In Smith’s defence, it looks like the similarity was an innocent mistake.
Every holiday has a playlist. Ours, as we sped down the 101 from San Francisco to the Napa Valley, had only eight songs, which we played on repeat until the entire car could confidently scream every last word out at the California sunset. But one of the tunes, we noticed, seemed to be cropping up more than the others.
It turns out that’s because the playlist featured both Sam Smith’s recent chart-topper, Stay With Me, and Tom Petty’s hit from 25 years earlier, I Won’t Back Down. And either they had the same music teacher or there’s something fishy going on.
A quick bit of Googling revealed that we weren’t the first to notice the similarity — but, while a bunch of people have commented that they sound alike, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at just how similar they are.
Here are the two tunes; the chorus of Stay With Me and the verse of I Won’t Back Down (transposed into the same key to make the comparison easier).
They’re not just similar — there are whole passages that are identical. Here they are again, with the identical notes and chords marked in red, and any other similarities marked in purple.
Of the four phrases, three are virtually identical. The pitches are the same; the rhythms are the same; the chords are pretty much the same, with Petty’s D subbed out for Smith’s C (a change that doesn’t really affect the harmony). Even the structure of the lyrics is similar — the songs’ titles both arrive on the same notes in the first full bar and are repeated in the last phrase.
When does similarity become plagiarism? Well, first off, Party A actually has to bother suing Party B. Maybe Tom Petty heard Stay With Me and liked it so much that he thought he’d let it lie. Fair enough.
If Party A does decide to sue, they need to prove two things: access and similarity. Had Sam Smith heard I Won’t Back Down before? It’s the first song from Petty’s first solo album and has had its fair share of covers, so it seems pretty likely. Then again, I’d never come across it before this holiday, so who knows.
As to similarity, though, I think Smith’s position would be pretty hard to defend. That’s a lot of notes that are the same.
Of course, even if Smith had heard I Won’t Back Down before, it’s distinctly possible that he didn’t intentionally copy it. Every composer is hugely influenced by the music he or she listens to, and it’s all too easy to think you’ve come up with an original tune when in fact it’s nestled somewhere deep in your subconscious because you’ve heard it before. In fact, this very thing happened to me a few years ago: I wrote some music for a play whose chords I realised, too late (after the first performance), were pretty much identical to those in an Alexis Ffrench piece I was transcribing at the time.
For this reason — and because, to be honest, I prefer the Sam Smith - I reckon I, for one, can forgive him.
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