Music Journalism, the L.A. Times and Music Theory

I won’t dawdle on this topic for too long, because I’ve spoken about it at length already, but a few days ago, I called out a music journalist for the L.A. Times (Randall Roberts) for incorrectly posting that Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” use “the same chord progressions.”  That article can be found here:

The Sam Smith tune has a vi-IV-I chord progression and the Tom Petty tune has a vi-V-I chord progression.  I can give you a whole music theory explanation for why the difference in chord progressions is substantive, but I won’t right now.  I will just point out the aforementioned statement has been repeated ad nauseum in the press, relates to a central issue in the controversy, and most importantly is FALSE.

I get that this journalist is just re-posting information from elsewhere, and just didn’t bother to fact check it.  I don’t particularly blame him for posting it in the first place.  However, it’s a little disconcerting to see that basically almost nobody bothered to fact-check this, especially when it’s something that can be fact-checked by listening to the songs, and with a little ear-training.  I don’t think that using music theory language is always necessary in analyzing and discussing music – which is why I don’t begrudge any particular music journalist for not having a moderate music theory background.  That view, though, is premised on the idea that people can actually hear the difference between things.  It doesn’t matter if you know the music-theory name for something – it does matter if you can hear that two things are the same or different.  And that’s been something that’s bugging me lately.  Again, maybe music journalists are just re-posting the information without even hearing it – that is somewhat forgivable because of the hurried state of journalism.  But for so many major outlets to be repeating a false statement about a central issue?

To his credit, Randall Roberts actually responded to my e-mail and was very apologetic, and he said he would change the article.  That said – the article hasn’t actually been changed.