Friday, May 23, 2014

Forensic Musicology

by Sandy Wilbur
NOTE: as part of our ongoing series on professional activity in musicology, we asked Sandy Wilbur to summarize her work. 
As a forensic musicologist, I have a wide variety of projects, potential or ongoing music litigations, public domain research, preventative problem solving (avoiding infringement issues when using reference tracks in films, for instance), and tracking down the origins of songs. One of my favorite projects was working with the Coen Brothers and T Bone Burnett on the songs used in O Brother Where Art Thou, which won a Grammy for best album of the year in 2002.

The Coen Brothers had built their entire script on songs that they assumed were “traditional” because that is what the CDs they bought stated. But that was hardly correct. After a year and a half researching field recordings in the Library of Congress and consulting experts, I discovered that some songs published for years were really in the public domain while another assumed to be traditional had been created in the 1950s. There were many original arrangements of public domain songs, and I had to determine which of these arrangements was closest to the one used. The version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” used in the film, was a version that was very different from the one many of us knew. This one, however, had not been copyrighted. It was used in the film.

The research paid off. There were no claims made against any of these wonderful songs.    

Sandy Wilbur is a forensic musicologist and composer/producer in New York City.  She has been a full time forensic musicologist for 25 years and has testified in numerous cases.  More information can be found at  She has also created educational music videos to help children learn history through music; see   

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