With only 7 notes in common use for any major or minor key, you’d think that the possibility of accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s song would be commonplace. How many ways can you rearrange notes to come up with something truly unique?
I’m sure some mathematician can come up with an actual answer for that, but it wouldn’t be a very relevant one. That’s because songs are more than their melody. There are other factors that make melodies differ from each other: rhythm, tempo, backing chords, lyrics and so on.
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Every composer of music I know has had the nagging feeling that they are accidentally plagiarizing something. That nagging feeling is usually one or both of the following:
- The song they’re working on is too reminiscent of some other song that they can’t bring to mind.
- The song is coming together quickly… too quickly for it to be something that hasn’t already existed.
If you’re working on a song and you wonder if you’re unwittingly copying something that you’ve heard before, what do you do?
The first step is not to panic. You’ve got time to fix the problem. No one will think worse of you for mistakenly thinking a musical idea is your own when it isn’t. It happens. The tricky part is confirming that you have (or haven’t) taken parts of an already-existing song and used them in your new one. Here’s what you can do:
- Play the song for a friend or family member. As writers of music, we can get a kind of blindness that makes it difficult to identify our own song ideas as coming from somewhere else. A friend can be a bit more objective about it.
- Play your song in a different tempo. Sometimes, a song that’s greatly slowed down or sped up will suddenly reveal where the ideas have come from.
- Try switching the time signature of your song. If the song in question is in 4/4 time (that’s most common in pop songwriting), try changing the time signature to 3/4 time. If you’re not too sure how to do this, read this post. Changing the time signature changes some of the rhythms, and that can suddenly reveal the actual source of your song.
- Change the key of your song. Try raising it a considerable amount, not just a semitone. By raising it by, say, a 4th, you’ll likely give it a completely different sound. The same is true for lowering the key. Put it a 4th or 5th lower, and you might suddenly discover that you’ve accidentally copied Cohen!
- Leave the song for a day or two, possibly a week, then play it for yourself again. The week away from it gives you some distance, and allows you to listen once more, but this time with a more objective ear.
- Change the chords and use some substitutes. By changing some of the chords, you may nudge it more clearly toward the song you’ve accidentally copied, and it may be easier to identify.
But Then… What Do You Do?
So if you have accidentally plagiarized a song, what do you do about it?
- The most easily recognizable element of a song is its melody, so if you find that you’ve grabbed someone else’s tune, you’ve obviously got to change that. And that’s simply songwriting, so it shouldn’t be a big deal (right?).
- If you’ve borrowed bits of melody, rhythm and chords, it may be safest to put the song aside and start a new one. Chords by themselves are not protected by copyright: you can use another song’s chord progression. But once you start using the chords and the rhythms, and then start using bits of melodic fragments from a pre-existing song, it becomes a slippery slope, and possibly too much of a tangle to fix.
- Take melody ideas that are the ones you’ve mistakenly taken, and try reversing the direction of the melody. If you discover you’ve accidentally plagiarized parts of “Hello” (Adele), try reversing some of the melodic shapes, and perhaps also change the tempo and the backing chords. In other words, get rid of whatever is sounding too similar, and you should be OK.
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If you’re a mathematician or physicist, formulas play a large role in your professional life. Formulas in that context are simply a kind of equation, and without them you don’t really have a profession.
Songwriters know the word formula very well. In a songwriting context, “formula” is a word that describes a process, or perhaps set of steps that results in a finished song. In a sense, a songwriting formula says “once you’ve done this, you should then do that.”
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Formulas exist on many levels in the songwriting world. The fact that we say “once you’ve done a verse, you should follow it with a chorus” is a kind of formula. Even the fact that pop songwriters, as their songs approach being 4 minutes long, are looking for ways to end the song before it gets too long, are responding to the directions that come from a type of formula.
You’ll often hear of songwriters speaking negatively about songwriting formulas, and when they do, they’re typically talking about the more restrictive kinds of formulas. For example, if you start all your songs with a guitar solo, and if all your songs use a pre-chorus, and if the bridge always starts on a vi-chord, ending on a big pause before launching into the final chorus repeats, you’re using a formula that likely works but stifles creativity, and that’s why good songwriters hate the word formula.
Why We Have Formulas At All
Where do songwriting formulas come from? Quite simply, a formula comes from the history of your chosen genre. Country songs sound like country songs because of all the things older country songs have in common. The kind of backing vocals, the ways the lyrics are written, even aspects of the melodies and chords — these are all results of songwriting formulas, and they all have roots in music history. Your song sounds like a country song because you’re using formula-based elements in your music.
That’s where they come from, but why do we use them? Someone must be using them, or else we wouldn’t be talking about them. Another way to ask this question is: Are songwriting formulas automatically bad?
No, formulas aren’t necessarily bad, and music would be a structureless mess if we didn’t use some kind of structure that relates to a formula. The good thing about a formula is that you’re giving the listener, at least to a certain degree, what they’re expecting to hear, and within reason that can be a good thing.
When Formulas Become More Important Than Originality
Where formulas become a problem is when your song seems to exist merely to put flesh on a formula. In other words, when the formula becomes more important than the original material you’re writing, you’ve got a problem. In that way, formula equates to predictability: the more you use a formula, the more predictable your music becomes.
How do you make sure that you’re not a slave to a songwriting formula? As you write, think about the following:
- Am I incorporating enough individuality and innovation into my songs? Innovation usually means that you’re stepping outside of the predictability that comes from using a songwriting formula.
- Are all my songs using the same (or almost the same) kinds of chord progressions, topics, melodic shapes, form, etc.? It likely means that you’re responding to the restrictions imposed by formulaic writing.
- Are all my songs in a similar tempo or performing style? This is a symptom that often comes from songwriting formulas.
As you may know if you’ve read my blog, I feel that chord progression formulas are mostly harmless, and can be a good way to add some solid structure to a song. You can have very imaginative melodies and abstract lyrics, and a solid chord progression behind all of that is a great way to keep listeners feeling that they’ve not been thrown into a sea of musical complexity.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Because good songwriting usually starts with improvising ideas based on your instincts, you may not have given much thought to what note your tunes start on. The chord you choose, in most circumstances anyway, limits your choices to 3 notes: the root, the 3rd or the 5th.
Understandably, there’s no rule that governs what the best starting note of a melody might be, or else songwriting would be a pretty boring activity. But there is something to be said for the following:
- In verse melodies, you can begin the building up of musical energy by avoiding the tonic note.
- In chorus melodies, you can allow the music to reach an energetic pinnacle, as it were, by featuring the tonic note more often.
The tonic note is the note that represents the key of your song. Music that’s in G major, for example, has a tonic note of G. When we hear that note in a melody, it displays characteristics of strength and musical repose: you’ve arrived.
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That, in a nutshell, explains why it works so well in a chorus, and why it often is beneficial to limit its use in a verse. By starting your verse on a non-tonic note, you keep the music from sounding too much like the song has reached its musical target.
Regarding verse melodies, there’s no reason that you would start on the 3rd more than starting on the 5th. Many songwriters would be surprised to know that what note you start on has a lot to do with your own melodic style. In that regard, many aren’t even aware that they have a melody style. We usually use the word style to describe the overall sound and production of a song.
Leonard Cohen liked to start many of his melodies on the 5th: “Hallelujah“, “Suzanne“, “Closing Time“, etc. The advantage of the 5th as a starting note (e.g., a melody starting on a G while strumming a C chord) is that there is a pleasant sense of musical instability associated with that note. It compels the listener to focus on what’s going to happen, and that usually keeps people listening.
Starting on the 3rd has the advantage of being able to easily move by step to either adjacent note, almost no matter what chord follows, so starting on the 3rd makes for good stepwise melodies. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” (Christine McVie) is a good example.
In any case, you can worry a lot about what note to start a melody on, but as I say, there’s no rule. When it comes to the tonic note and chord, you might want to consider the following tips:
- Avoid overdue of the tonic note in your verse melodies.
- If you do use the tonic note and it sounds a bit to “final” for your tastes, try to accompany the note with a non-tonic chord. In other words, if your verse seems to feature a C in the melody while the chord C is being played, see if you can rework your progression to use Am or F, or even Dm7 at some of those moments.
- Lots of tonic note in a verse is OK if those notes happen on “weak” beats: beats 2 or 4 of a bar.
- There’s no reason that you must feature the tonic note a lot in a chorus. Most chord progressions should target the tonic chord, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tonic note must similarly keep reappearing.
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I’m often asked about motifs – how they work in typical songwriting, and if songwriters even need to be aware of them. Unlike a hook, which does its work in the foreground, a motif is a small building-block of music that works mainly in the background.
That’s not to say we don’t typically hear motifs — we do if we listen for them. But here’s the main difference between hooks & motifs: a hook is like a flag that the music waves in the air, allowing the song to be immediately identified. A motif, on the other hand, serves as a bit of melody or rhythm that strengthens the structure of a song, and works mostly in the background.
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A motif appears, and then is used either as-is, or modified and developed as a song progresses. A good example of a motif at work in a pop song: “Closing Time” (Leonard Cohen).
Much of the melody is comprised of a quickly-descending figure that serves as a melodic motif:
That alternating between a higher note and a lower one starts out as a major 2nd interval. From there, the motif changes. Sometimes you hear it as a descending 4th… sometimes a line is sung where notes barely change at all.
When the backing singers sing the “closing time” chorus, you can hear that the motif is reversed as they bend the notes upward. That’s just one way that a motif can develop and change as a song progresses.
The fact that various melodic ideas in the song share this common motif is what strengthens the structure of a song. Producers use motifs all the time when they supervise the recording of a song. They’ll add certain backing rhythms and other ideas to the instrumental accompaniment, all designed to help glue the song together.
Instinct or Purposeful?
At the songwriting level, how much of motif-writing is conscious, and how much of it just happens? It’s probably a mixture of both in the best songwriters. Good writers have an instinct for limiting the number of discrete ideas in a song by relating several seemingly unrelated ideas through the use of a motif.
There are several words that all relate to each other, but have slightly different meanings: hook, riff, motif, groove, and so on. The importance of a good hook in pop songwriting is obvious. And most songs, if they aren’t slow ballads, will need some sort of groove to keep the listener fixated.
Motifs are one more element that can really help by having one aspect of your song “sound reminiscent” of other aspects. If you’re wondering if you’re making good use of what motifs can potentially do for you, consider the following ideas:
- Melodic rhythm. Try to find ways to have rhythmic ideas repeat throughout your song, so that the melody in one section in your song bears some small resemblance to another.
- Melodic shape. Try taking a verse melody, and reversing some aspect of it. For example, if your verse melody consists of many upward-moving shoes, try writing a chorus melody that uses mainly downward-moving ones.
- Chord progressions. Let’s say you’ve worked out a good chorus progression. To create one for a verse, try borrowing ideas from that progression, ideas that might sound similar to the chorus. When an audience hears both progressions, they hear them as different, but with some pleasant aspect of similarity that helps to strengthen the song.
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Not every song is about the melody. For songs where the melody is kind of a neutral player, you’ll typically find that the rhythmic treatments, (especially background) will step up and take a leading role. In other words, the groove and feel become very important contributors.
How you know that a melody is acting as a crucial part of the success of a song is when you notice:
- its range is relatively expansive – at least an octave;
- it moves up and down in an attempt to mirror the emotional content of the lyrics;
- repeating elements, particularly repetitions that begin on different notes.
In the hope that someone might walk down the street humming your latest song melody, it’s worth looking at each of those characteristics more closely.
The Importance of Melodic Range
The fact that a melody moves up and down is a given, or else it wouldn’t be a melody. It’s more important to make note of why it’s moving up and down, and in that respect, points #1 and #2 above go hand-in-hand.
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Since the voice displays ever-increasing levels of emotion as it goes higher, it’s wise to partner that with the emotional content of the lyric. That feature of our voice applies even in non-musical settings. If you say in a low-pitched voice, “That’s my muffin,” someone will hand you a muffin. If you raise your voice to a relatively high range and say the same thing, someone will wonder what you’re getting all worked up about. That’s the nature of the human voice.
So as a songwriter, part of making your song’s melody effective is to move your focus back and forth between the melody and the lyric, and making sure that the more emotive parts of your lyric aren’t getting downplayed by a melody moving in the wrong direction.
Some great song melodies that demonstrate the up-and-down nature in partnership with lyrics:
- Here in My Heart (Pat Genaro, Lou Levinson, Bill Borelli), recorded by Al Martino, 1952. Lyrics
- Rocket Man (Elton John, Bernie Taupin). Recorded by Elton John, 1972. Lyrics
- Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton, Will Jennings). Recorded by Eric Clapton, 1991. Lyrics
The Importance of Repetition
I talk a lot about repetition in good melodies, because it’s one of the strongest organizing structures in music. Playing/singing something once means that it’s come and gone. Sing it twice, and it suddenly rises to being a crucial structural element.
The Song “Water and a Flame“, written by Eg White and Daniel Merriweather, and recorded by Merriweather for his debut album “Love & War”, is a great example of not just how repetition strengthens the structure of a song, but also how repetition can occur in different ways.
As you’ll notice, the opening line happens while the melody is sequenced downward. Melodic sequencing means that a line of melody is repeated at a lower pitch, and then often repeated again at a still lower pitch. You’ll hear this on the first 3 lines of lyric:
Seven days has gone so fast,
I really thought the pain would pass.
It’s been nearly an hour…
The melody of this opening section then repeats, but it becomes rhythmic, not melodic, repetition. From there, almost every line of melody is repeated, either exactly or approximately as Merriweather improvises and extrapolates on what he’s sung on the previous line.
Advice for Strengthening the Power of a Melody
The best advice for songwriters who are looking to make their next song melody something that really steps up and gets noticed? Be sure to move your melody up and down as the emotional value of the lyric at any given moment dictates.
And to use repetition of musical phrases as an important structural element. When audiences hear music repeating, they feel more secure and feel that they understand the music much more than in songs where little is repeated.
Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is where you’ll discover the secrets of writing a melody that partners well with a lyric. Get the full 10-eBook Bundle, and a FREE COPY of “Creative Chord Progressions.”
Hi, I'm Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You'll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
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