In music copyright infringement cases, forensic musicologists are often called to testify as to whether or not two songs are ‘substantially similar.’ While it is standard practice to rely on experts to dissect the works in question, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Until the 1950s, it was not the scientific analysis of the pieces, but the impressions they left on the ‘untrained ears’ of everyday listeners that was used to determine copyright infringement. This paper presents an overview of American music copyright infringement cases to document this shift in how the question of substantial similarity has been approached. We argue that the courts’ inability to objectify what listeners hear created the need for experts who could translate music into legal evidence that could be visually witnessed. This practice of judging plagiarism according to how songs look on paper may account for why the courts have viewed musical sampling as copyright violations.