'I've heard that before': here's why some songs sound familiar

We go on record to explain the various compositions of modern melodies that find their base in classics

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Ariana Grande preforms at Billboard Women In Music 2018 on December 6, 2018 in New York City.   Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Billboard /AFP
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A seminal song sounds like ­nothing you've ever heard ­before – but the test of a good pop song is something that sounds instantly familiar. It's that tune you find yourself humming in a mall, despite being the first time you've heard it.

That psychic phenomenon has been happening more and more of late – but not necessarily because songwriters are getting better, maybe just lazier. A string of recent “new” hit singles have recycled melodies and motifs from classic material – giving listeners an ever-ready ear worm certain to fire satisfying synapses.

These are not conventional cover versions, but merely a canny appropriation of proven audio dynamite. There’s no trickery at play – technically, at least – with songwriters of the source material credited for anyone who bothers to look for them. And while sampling vintage grooves and quoting familiar melodies is nothing new, this sudden swathe of half-original releases might suggest that, in 2019, pop music has entered a creative cul-de-sac. Let’s examine the evidence. 

Case A: interpolation at play

The year began with two prime examples of this ballooning trend, with Ariana Grande's 7 Rings and Daddy Yankee's Con Calma landing just days apart in January – two hits both boldly built around classic tunes.

Flying straight to the top of America's Billboard chart, Grande's 7 Rings lifts from not one, but two, existing songs – slyly subverting the musical past to make a fresh statement. There's a cheeky nod-wink shamelessness in the verse melody's regular references to My Favourite Things, a singalong first written for legendary musical, The Sound of Music.

The track tears up Rodgers and Hammerstein's twee, family-friendly lyrics – which, in the famous film adaptation, see Julie Andrews innocently list "raindrops on roses", "warm woollen mittens", "crisp apple strudels" and "brown paper packages tied up with strings" among her "favourite things". Grande's 21st century extrapolation instead serves as a crow to capitalism, switching in "bottles of bubbles", "lashes and diamonds" and "ATM machines" as the singer's most prized concerns, concluding "I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it".

In the same unapologetic tone, the track's bridge jumps decades forward to lift from the markedly less innocent Gimme the Loot, The Notorious B I G's homage to theft and mugging from 1994's widely hailed debut, Ready to Die. Together, these two references mean 7 Rings's ­royalties are split between 10 different songwriters.

Rather than samples – the process of digitally lifting a beat or hook from an existing track, which has long dominated hip-hop music – these are both examples of what is known as interpolation, or simply put, creating fresh music from an existing melody. A seminal example is the formative hip-hop tune Rapper's Delight, which saw The Sugarhill Gang introduce rap to a mainstream audience over the rerecorded, head-nodding groove to Chic's floor-filler Good Times.

More recently, former One ­Direction member Liam Payne's solo debut Strip That Down contained an ­interpolation of Shaggy's 2000 hit It Wasn't Me – which itself ­interpolates War's Smile Happy – arriving at a combined roll call of 16 credited songwriters.

While today, the art of ­interpolation is most typically associated with producers who can't or won't cough up the royalties to sample an original track, it's a practice which dates back centuries: improvising jazz ­musicians have long quoted the hits of the day in their solos, while ­classical and, especially, opera composers would incorporate tunes by influences and contemporaries to set certain scenes. It's a powerful tool which should not be disparaged without explanation.

Case B: Remembering, or ‘reimagining’

Daddy Yankee's Con Calma, ­however, was more dubiously dubbed a "reimagining" of Snow's 1992 single Informer. Pivotally, the track's ­production team Play-N-Skillz reached out to invite the Canadian rapper to be featured – making their remake something between a cover and a collaboration.

Released in January – a week after 7 RingsCon Calma was already a smash, but went stratospheric following a May reissue featuring Katy Perry. Following this remix's premiere on American Idol, the single would peak on Spotify and Deezer's global streaming charts and spend six weeks atop YouTube Music's Global Video charts. But for anyone alive and listening in 1992, the track's distinctive reggaeton groove was already instantly familiar.

A standout of Tyler, the Creator's fifth album, Igor, was the epic Gone, Gone / Thank You, built around a jarringly sped-up version of Japanese singer-songwriter Tatsuro Yamashita's ballad Fragile. In this case, the source material serves as a launch-pad – it's impossible for Tyler's verses to exist without the bed on which they rest, but the rapper undeniably brings fresh wit and worth to the table.

Technically, this was an authorised sample – a tradition which dates to the birth of hip-hop, when rappers progressed from toasting over looped beats from juggled records. As samplers got more sophisticated, so did the music – and by the late '90s, the practice had been thoroughly embraced by the mainstream – as evidenced by Coolio's 1995 bestseller Gangsta's Paradise, built on Stevie Wonder's charged Pastime Paradise. Two years later, Puff ­Daddy's Biggie tribute I'll Be Missing You ­successfully sampled The Police's Every Breath You Take, as well as spotlighting Samuel Barber's modern classical standard Adagio for Strings and ­interpolating from two hymns. These old tunes combined to create a compelling newness. 

Case C: The noble art of the sample

The most successful sample of recent times might be Cardi B's I Like It, an unashamed Latin pastiche conceived in cohorts with Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny and Colombian singer J Balvin.

I Like It sported its sampled source material as a talisman. Originally a 1967 hit for Pete Rodriguez, I Like It Like That was among the most definitive songs of the brief boogaloo boom – tellingly built around one of history's most hypnotic chord sequences. Memorably used as the basis of tunes from Ray Charles's Hit the Road Jack to Destiny's Child's Bills, Bills, Bills, the distinctive descending four-note figure – properly called a "basso lamento" – can be traced back to Bach's Mass in B Minor. And, later picked up as both the theme of a same-name movie and the backbone of a marketing campaign for a major fast food chain, today I Like it Like That sounds to the average ear like the very definition of Latin music.

Cardi B knew this well. A group endeavour which lists no fewer than 16 songwriters, I Like It liberally layers the original groove with intoxicating, but reverential trap beats – serving a frenetic canvas for the star's razor-sharp rhymes. Delivered in Spanish, Bad Bunny's guest turn offers summery exoticism and credible authenticity. When I Like It topped the Billboard charts, it made Cardi B the only female rapper to score two number ones, and was declared the tune of summer 2018.

Cardi's team almost certainly took note of the huge success of 2017 summer anthem Wild Thoughts, another big-name Latin-tinged co-production. Credited equally to hype-maker DJ Khaled, superstar Rihanna and the vocalist Bryson Tiller, the track casts a Latin vibe with stereotypical Spanish guitar flourishes – and is punctuated by liberal samples from Santana's 1999 Grammy winner Maria Maria.

Part of the star-studded collaborative Supernatural album which rehabilitated the Woodstock-era guitar icon, Maria Maria itself helped fuel a growing trend for Latin R&B crossovers – while paying homage to Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story – which featured the classic ballad Maria, covered by everyone from Placido Domingo to Marvin Gaye.

A good idea need not die at birth – and as each of these recent releases demonstrate, old tunes can find new life and fresh ears when inventively embraced with new creativity, technologies and tastes. Forms and melodies have long been passed down, recycled and appropriated – and ultimately served as the source of inspiration and innovation. Regurgitating the past endlessly is a thankless, worthless pursuit – but drawing from the rich tapestry of our shared musical heritage to create a richer present is the goal of any artist. So, just maybe, the next seminal single you hear will be one you already know.