When you hear the term forensic musicologist, you might think of someone who investigates musical crime scenes—which is actually not too far off. When Dr. Joe Bennett is not teaching in the Professional Music and Songwriting departments at Berklee College of Music, he investigates copyright infringement in the music industry as a forensic musicologist. 

“I was always fascinated by songwriting creativity,” says Bennett. “At the start of a three-hour songwriting session, there’s nothing there, and then at the end, two or three hours later, a brand new song exists that wasn’t before in the world? I find that a beautiful and mysterious process.”

As the owner of his private practice, Joe Bennett Music Services, his job is to examine two pieces of music to determine the likelihood that one is copied from the other. Copyright infringement can take two forms: in the composition and recording of a song. Compositional copying is when somebody duplicates a section of a melody or a lyric. Sound record copying involves recorded musical, spoken, or other sounds, which is common in hip-hop.

Berklee Online instructor and course author Dr. E. Michael Harrington explains the difference between a composition copyright and a sound recording copyright. He has worked as a consultant and expert witness in hundreds of music copyright matters including efforts to return “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” to the public domain.

Bennett typically offers his professional opinion to lawyers and artists. To crack a case, he first listens to the two songs in question. He then writes a musicology report providing his opinion whether the song, or parts of the song, were copied. In a normal circumstance, Bennett turns the report around in about a week, but sometimes he has clients who require an answer as soon as possible. In those situations, he quickly listens to the audio, transcribes it, typesets it into music software, and fires off a report to his client. 

Bennett says that he prefers working for the defendants because there are many reasons why songs can sound similar that have nothing to do with copyright infringement. 

“In practice, songwriters generally don’t steal melodies,” says Bennett. “It’s crass and it’s unnecessary, and why would you do it when there’s the threat of a lawsuit? For people just getting started in forensic musicology, I would say don’t get too excited by potential plaintiff accusations because more often than not, there is no substance to them.”

Learn more about a career as a Musicologist.

Forensic musicology is an extremely small discipline that requires expertise across a range of musical disciplines. Bennett shares five important skills you need to know as a forensic musicologist.

Dr. Joe Bennett at Bath Spa University studios in the UK.

Copyright Law

Forensic musicologists are not law specialists. They have the music qualifications and authority in a courtroom and therefore do not require a law degree (though it wouldn’t hurt). However, you must have a deep understanding of the principles of copyright law, including subjects like independent creation, substantial similarity, the way royalties are distributed in the music industry, and knowledge of music publishing. 

“I would suggest that it’s important to any musician’s career to have an understanding of copyright, because copyright generates royalties and royalties are income,” says Bennett. “In my opinion—and ergo bias‚ everyone in the music industry should have a good working knowledge of copyright.”

Bennett highly recommends E. Michael Harrington’s courses through Berklee Online. Harrington famously argued that “We Shall Overcome” should be free from copyright and in the public domain—he was successful.


Ear Training

In order to be a forensic musicologist, you must have the ear training chops to be able to critically listen for subtle differences in music and have the theoretical music knowledge to explain why two pieces are similar or different. Bennett says you need to be able to hear a melody, know what the notes are, and be able to transcribe the rhythmic values, harmony context, and more. He got his musical start playing in cover bands and bar bands as a teenager, then, went on to study music in college and built up his ear training skills transcribing guitar. 

“What I really enjoyed in music college was transcribing and analyzing music,” says Bennett. “So my first day job in music was music editor for Total Guitar Magazine in the UK,” says Bennett. “Every day I had to listen to Jimi Hendrix riffs, and the like, and transcribe them as guitar tab for publication in the magazine. I’ve always been interested in the notes of music—the way music is built. When I got into music education many years later, that led me into the academic pursuit of musicology.”


Music History

To determine whether a piece of music is original or not, you need to have a large catalog of music history knowledge. Bennett specializes in pop music, therefore you could potentially be a forensic musicologist in a genre that you are most familiar. The idea is to be able to quickly pinpoint the derivation of a piece of music or style, and having a vast knowledge of music history on hand is helpful when getting to the bottom of a copyright case. 

“You need a good knowledge of music history, and music production processes, because a lot of the times you are researching whether something is original,” says Bennett. “You have to figure out whether the thing you’re hearing has been done before. So you need a really good knowledge of repertoire.”


Writing Skills

Of course, you must have good written English skills in order to be a forensic musicologist. Whether you start your own private practice or work in academia (or both, like Bennett), you must be able to write formal reports that could appear in research or in a court of law. 

“You need good written English skills because musicologists write reports for lawyers, and those documents can be used in courtrooms,” says Bennett. “You have to be able to use language very, very precisely.”


Music Production

Part of Bennett’s workflow involves using a DAW program to write his reports and conduct audio comparisons. Music production skills are so important to forensic musicology, that Bennett actually took a course through Berklee Online to learn Ableton Live. For years, he used Logic, Pro Tools, and Finale as his programs of choice until taking a course with Berklee Online instructors, Erin Barra and Loudon Stearns.

“I wanted to have the Berklee Online experience,” says Bennett. “I learned so much about Ableton in that 12-week course that I now use Ableton exclusively for all of my audio-based forensic musicology work. So thanks to Berklee Online, it’s changed the way I work with all my clients.”