“Stairway” Lies on the Whispering Wind

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Chris Shields, Editor

         Led Zeppelin reigned over the globe with an iron fist of popularity and relevance throughout the 60s and 70s with their dirty, bluesy, classic, hard rock sound and electrifying live shows. In the span of their career, the band released nine studio albums and swept the world with each one. On one album titled Led Zeppelin IV, there was one song in particular that would go down as one of the greatest, most iconic, overplayed, beautiful songs/ballads of all time: “Stairway to Heaven.”

         Written by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant, this eight minute masterpiece topped charts all over the place following its release in 1971, but not too long ago, a lawsuit arose over its main, often considered “forbidden” guitar riff, and it’s similarity “Taurus” by American rock group Spirit. Zeppelin’s history with Spirit goes all the way back to Spirit’s first American tour when Zepp opened for them. Led Zeppelin also covered “Fresh Garbage” by Spirit in live shows for a bit. 

“Taurus,” which was released three years prior to “Stairway to Heaven” is in the key of A major, while Stairway is in the key of A minor. Both riffs begin with an acoustic guitar arpeggiating the root A chord. The first three chords of both songs are identical, progressing in the order Am, Am7, and then Amm7. However, after this point the similarities cease. Stairway evolves to a D, then an F, while “Taurus” progresses to Am6, then back to an Am.

While both chord progressions are simply arpeggiated chords in the same key, the voicings of the chords are slightly different. A listener is easily able to identify which riff is which, but on paper, and speaking in terms of progressions and theory, the two riffs are strikingly similar.

In September of 2014, Michael Skidmore realized these similarities and cried copyright infringement by  Led Zeppelin. After a long ongoing trial and a series of appeals to the court over whether or not Zeppelin ripped off Spirit completely with this song, a verdict has finally been reached.

Zeppelin was found to be innocent of copyright infringement for a couple reasons. One being that the simple descending chromatic line in the main riff was too “basic,” for lack of a better word, to be considered plagiarism. Chromatic lines like this one are so common and basic to music theory that it’s too broad to claim ownership of the concept. Stairway is considered to be one of the greatest and best written songs of all time and is synonymous with not only Zeppelin and the 70s, but pop culture as a whole.

After years of process, the court proved what music fans already knew, and that is that “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is a complete original. A song that took the world by storm following its release is still  relevant and appreciated to this day.

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