Free Pi!

No, Pi cannot be copyrighted, despite what one composer claims.  I had wondered why Michael John Blake’s beautiful YouTube video of “What Pi Sounds Like” had been taken down.  I’d linked to it in my “Happy π Day from Crockett Johnson” post, and then it… disappeared.  Blake explains why below:

Vi Hart has a truly excellent response to Lars Erikson, the composer who filed the claim against Michael Blake.  Check it out:

As Hart notes, Erikson has also written a melody based on Pi — but it’s a different melody.  I am not a legal expert, but I don’t think that Erikson’s claim has any standing: If this were a case of one melody sounding like another, then Mr. Erikson would have precedent.  See for instance, the case of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” in which Mr. Harrison’s piece was ruled to have borrowed from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” and Mr. Harrison was ordered to pay royalties to the song’s composer.  (I’ve complied a page of such borrowings — most of which have not resulted in lawsuits — on a blog post inspired by allegations made against Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”.)

Compare the two Pi songs.  Here is the first movement of Lars Erikson’s Pi Symphony:

NewScientist has re-posted Michael Blake’s original video for “What Pi Sounds Like”:

You can also buy Michael Blake’s “What Pi Sounds Like” on iTunes.  When I listen to these two works, side by side, I find it a bit of a stretch to claim that Blake has somehow plagiarized Erikson’s work.  Yes, they both draw inspiration from 3.1415926535…, but sharing a common influence does not allow us to conclude that one work “stole” from the other.  Honestly, the main conclusion I draw from all of this is that Lars Erikson has the heart of a lawyer, and that Michael John Blake has the heart of an artist.

What do you think?


  1. Toby Speed Said,

    April 9, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    I interviewed Vi Hart when she was a student at Stony Brook (I think she’s graduated). She had just composed a symphony based on the Harry Potter books and was conducting an ensemble performance. Unique and wonderful! I believe there are plans to feature her and her dad (who’s on the faculty) in our next issue of the alumni magazine.

  2. buddy Said,

    April 10, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

    If you compare Erickson’s “Explanation of Pi Symphony” to Blake’s video, there is an obvious similarity. It is a bit too similar. If you want be fair, you should post these two videos side by side, where the similarities are blatantly obvious. In my opinion, Blake copied this video. Look again

  3. Philip Nel Said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 12:02 am

    Buddy: Look again. I do post both videos side by side, above. You assert that Blake copies Erikson, but offer no specifics. If you’d like to elaborate with examples, please do.

  4. Sherrie Said,

    June 28, 2011 @ 11:49 am

    Other than the obvious main inspiration for the song, the method of expression differs greatly.

    It takes no stretch to imagine that multiple people would take inspiration from the same source. As a kid, my friends and I prank called our math teacher and played Pi on the phone buttons. Later, I tried playing it on the piano, but I didn’t have much knowledge of music theory, so what I played turned out to be boring and I stopped there. I also tried messing around with names and other numbers to see what they’d sound like. What can I say? I was a geek. I’ve programmed since I was 6 and played with numbers as long as I can remember. And that was all before Mr. Erikson composed his symphony.

    Each of the two individuals here have written works worthy of praise, but they are individual, distinct works and should be treated as such. I believe Mr. Erikson has no claim to stand on in this case.

  5. Emily Said,

    March 16, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    I understand why some say that Blake copied Erickson. Blake begins his video by showing how he assigns musical pitches to numbers. He appears to have assigned the same musical pitches to the same numbers as Erickson did, although there are many other pitches and orders of pitches that he could have used instead. Both seem to have chosen to assign numbers to the C Major scale in an ascending fashion. Blake could have chosen to assign the numerical values to a minor scale, a chromatic scale, a whole tone scale, a pentatonic scale, et cetera, each of those resulting in a completely different piece, though they are all based on one pattern. I personally would not say he copied Erickson’s composition, because I think it’s highly likely that two composers could both come up with that idea independently of one another, BUT if Blake had been worried about copyright issues he could have chosen to base his system off of a different set of pitch classes other than the ascending C Major scale.

Leave a Comment