Can You Use Someone Else's Chord Progression?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

Many songwriters are not aware of this, but chord progressions, as such, are not protected by copyright, and can be used by other songwriters. This makes sense, because if you had to come up with a unique progression that the world had never heard before for each song you write, you’d be out of songs very quickly.

It is a very useful songwriting exercise to take the chord progression of a famous song, and then apply a new rhythmic pattern, tempo and/or time signature to see what else can be done with it. You’d be very surprised to know how often this happens. Did you know that the famous musical theatre ballad “Hey There” from “The Pajama Game” follows, for a while, the chords and even the melody for Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major?

You won’t be able to take copyright melodies and doctor them for your own needs, (unless you do a considerable amount of doctoring!) but try this: Find a song that you really like, extract the chord progression, and then try playing it using a completely new tempo and new basic rhythm. To use the same chords with the same rhythm as the song you found it in starts to move into the copyright infingement area. So be sure that your use of the progression is unique.

This type of borrowing works better for songs that use standard progressions. The more unique a progression, the harder it is to hide where you got it.

This is a completely legal use of another chord progression. You can’t do this with another songwriter’s melodies: they are subject to copyright, and are protected from other people “borrowing” them. And infingement is essentially a cumulative thing: borrowing chords is legal, but borrowing the rhythms, instrumentation, and any other identifiable aspect of a song starts to look like stealing. Just be careful.


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Posted in Chord Progressions.

79 Comments

  1. Hi Gary,

    I run a recording studio and do a lot of work for hire musician sessions for clients that need musicians on their projects. 99% of the clients have the songs already written and just work for hire the musicians. However, I had a client asking if I could hire my pianist to write the chord progressions to their vocal melody and lyrics that had already written. The client did not know any of the chords or how they were going to be structured. Based on this I told the client that the pianist would be entitled to co-writing credit because they are contributing a big portion to the song by writing the chords to their melody.

    Reading up on copyright law since technically chord progressions are not copyrightable, is the pianist/chord arranger actually entitled to co-writing of the song? If it’s a basic by the books chord structure I could understand not getting credit, but what if the pianist writes a melodic hook that’s crucial to the song? Seems like that’s a fine line that could be blurred very easily.

    My client seemed very hesitant to give anyone co-writing credit and just called anyone that would help with the chords “embellishing their vocal melody.”

    • That’s a good question, Ryan. These days, I think the person creating the chords would likely get a credit, though as you say, they’re not adding anything except chords.

      If I saw two names as a writing credit after the title of a song, I’d assume that both people contributed to the melody and/or the lyrics. I wouldn’t assume that they contributed just the chords. Consider also that chords work because of what the melody is doing. So in a sense, a contributor of chords is only able to do that if the melody has already been written.

      This sounds like an issue for a copyright lawyer. I might recommend someone like Kurt Dahl, who has a webpage and contact info here: http://lawyerdrummer.com. (It looks like Kurt is a Canadian lawyer, but the legal answer should be the same for most countries, I would think.) I have no idea if he gives his advice for free, so you’ll have to ask. I notice that Kurt has a very extensive “Resources” page here: http://lawyerdrummer.com/resources/ – You might find something useful on that page.

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

  2. Hello, Gary. I’m a newbie at music. I made songs in the past on Musicshake, BUT Musicshake is awful because they have artists pay not just for commercial usage BUT also personal. So if I want to use my own song in a film or game, I have to pay for it even though it’s my own song. In any case, it’s because of that that I now use LMMS. When I downloaded LMMS software, there’s a section called “My Projects”, and I was wondering IF I can use some of the “notes” from one of the instructments/beats used? It’s not even the entire progression. Just a fraction. I hope to use it, make a song, and sell it. I would tho, place it in a different instrument. I see you’re saying chord progression is fine in most cases but I am a newbie at music jargon and do not understand what Chord Progression is. Please explain if you may. Thanks for your time.

    • Hello Caleb:

      I’m not familiar with Musicshake. If they are charging you to use your own music (as in, some kind of ongoing fee) there must be more involved than simply allowing you to assemble & record your own music. If they are providing you with an interface, and perhaps some sound file as an output, I can see them charging for that service.

      A chord progression is a set of chords that move one to the next. So C Dm F G7 C is a progression. Each chord is made up of 3 or more notes (C, for example, is made up of the notes C-E-G; G7 is comprised of 4 notes: G-B-D-F).

      A chord progression can be used in any number of ways. A guitar might strum it, or a symphony orchestra might play those notes, all assigned to different instruments. In any case, chord progressions are not protected by copyright – you can use them however you see fit.

      But the melody that gets played with those chords is protected; you can’t copy someone’s melody. Not knowing which notes you want to use from the beats you mention, I can’t say whether or not you are infringing someone’s copyright. But if it’s something more than the simple chord progression in its basic form, it sounds like you might be using something you’re not legally permitted to use.

      Keep in mind that the “Blurred Lines” decision, in which a judge found that the song “Blurred Lines” borrowed the “feel” of an already-existing song was violating copyright, means that using anything more than the chords might be a problem. I’m not a lawyer, but I’d be careful if you plan to use notes other than the ones you find in a chord progression.

      -Gary

  3. Here’s a question: So, there’s a professional artist I used to follow who died in 2015, and before doing so, they posted a 30 minute YouTube video of partial song/Riff ideas, most of which haven’t been recorded or put into full songs under this artist’s band. There’s one partial song (contains drums, guitars, and a little bit of lead guitar) that I think sounds incredible and would like to finish the song and possibly post it on a personal YouTube channel. Considering that this person posted this Riff idea on YouTube without claiming it as copyrighted material, would I be in trouble for finishing the song by employing my own interpretation of it (i.e. – change up some minor things with the lead and add unique vocals)?

    • That’s a tricky one. First (and remembering that I’m not a lawyer), one does not have to claim copyright in order for copyright to exist. For example, if I compose something, but don’t put a copyright symbol on anything (CD, printed music, etc), I still own the copyright by virtue of the fact that I wrote it.

      In the situation you describe, I would think you might be in violation of copyright, particularly if you use his lead guitar lines. If it’s just the chord progression, you’re completely in the clear. Once you start borrowing his drum/rhythm ideas, the general feel, and then lead guitar bits, you are, I think, crossing the line.

      I might suggest that one way to proceed is to get in touch with whoever might have had a connection to the artist, perhaps his family, and get permission to use the material from whoever owns the copyright, and then describe it as a co-write. But it sounds to me that you might need to get better legal advice on this one. I don’t know what happens to copyright once an artist has died. It likely goes to “his estate” (which likely means a family member), but I really don’t know.

      -Gary

  4. Hey,
    If you use the chords from pop song such as “I hate u, I love u” can you be sued even if the tempo is different and if the beat to is different? I composed a song that has the same chord progressions of that song and I wrote different lyrics to it and the song has a different tempo, so do you think that I can still be sued? The song sounds totally different, but it’s still using the same chords as the song.

    • You’re completely in the clear to use someone else’s chord progression, especially the progression in “i hate you, i love you,” which is a very common one, and one you’d likely hear in a considerable percentage of hit-bound songs these days. When it comes to copyright protection, melody and lyrics are the biggest consideration. Chord progressions are a concern only if the feel (tempo, rhythmic backing, instrumentation, etc.) is also copied along with the progression. If you’ve got a song with a different melody, lyric and tempo, I’m sure you’re going to be fine. No jail time for you! 😉

      -Gary

  5. I have composed a unique jazz melody, but have used the ‘intro’ and ‘ending’ parts of a STYLE which is built into my Yamaha keyboard. Would I be in infringment of copyright if I sent ths off to a film/tv company looking for unique compositions? I’m assuming it would be OK, as there is nothing in the manuals that says you cannot use STYLES in this way. Please advise as I want to enter something for consideration.

    • Hi Kerri:

      That’s a good question, and perhaps someone with legal experience can weigh in here. I’d have thought that simply copying a style would be fine, but the “Blurred Lines” copyright case might indicate otherwise. If it were me, I’d do what I could to make modifications to the style so that copyright violation isn’t a possibility.

      Gary

    • Kerry, I’m not legal expert, but I’m a professional producer and have countless purchases with equipment such a yamaha, roland, etc. There is a case of a producer getting sued for using something similar to what your talking about, but not exactly what you talking about. They were sued for producing music with the DEMO music that’s sometimes available on certain hardware synths. You press the button to hear the Demo music when you are auditioning a sound, they are basically trying to show you the quality or application of the sound that you are selected. I’m sure, in the manual somewhere there was a disclaimer about that, but you are right – there is no disclaimers for using the intros, ending, fill, or “styles” associated with certain software and hardware sythns, piano and other apps that are intended to “HELP” you write songs. In most copyright cases, the burden of proof is on YOU to show how you came up with your music vs. that the author of said STOLEN music is trying to accuse you of. i.e: pharell tried to deny that his influence in blurred lines was from the Marvin Gaye song. CLEARLY, they have the same musical elements, but they don’t actually share the same song structure…it’s as if the MG song created a different genre and they were the first casualty of that style. #FanBoysRevenge kzehrah@instagram.com

  6. Hi Gary,

    If I was to use the chords of a traditional song from a long time ago, ie Happy Birthday to show someone a fingering technique would I still be subject to copyright? Ie either sheet music, finger positioning on the frets or something similar to what this gentleman has on his site here: http://recordrestorations.com/chords-happy-birthday.php. I looked in the public domain and since this song is before 1922, the copyright has been lifted, if I understand it correctly. Also, can you show this on a product you intend to sell over the internet? Thanks!

    • Hi Karen:

      If you’re wanting to use the chords to “Happy Birthday” to show someone a particular fingering technique (or for any reason, actually), you’re completely free to do so. The chords to that song are so generic that there’s no legal way you could be in violation of a copyright. If, however, you intend to use the melody and lyrics of “Happy Birthday” in your demonstration, now you need to be sure that you’ve not crossed the line to be in violation of copyright. (I believe “Happy Birthday” passed into public domain in 2016, according to the Wikipedia article on the song.)

      Remember, though, that copyright for a song can expire in one country, but still be in force in another. But I think you’re pretty safe to use it.

      But if you would rather proceed with an abundance of caution, you could do up the exercises, and include a note that says something like, “This is the same chord progression that we find with the song ‘Happy Birthday,’ if that helps you in your practicing…”

      I hope that helps, Karen.
      -Gary

  7. Gary. Firstly, it’s very nice of u to answer peoples’ concerns over these matters. Sometimes it is a bit of a worry.
    What I have here may be a slippery slope in to the abyss, but I do have to sort it out, becoz my songs do go on-line for sale.
    After being inspired by Neil Morse’s concept album ‘Sola Scriptura’, a part story of reformationist Martin Luther, I began to write my own concept album based on a book which is ‘Public Domain’. (Info on book is hidden here coz I don’t want to ‘give it away’- just yet – I want to release the recording first). Neil has a very long track where a sub-song within the track, maybe 5mins.long , called ‘”Keep Silent” became a basis for my own, also a sub-song about the same length, on my 16min. track. I liked what Neil’s band did and purposely wrote & recorded something similar to it. I have not attempted contact with Neil yet. If I transpose Neil’s key to my Dm key use, it would read, for the pre-verse, verse, chorus as so:

    Me: 4 [: Dm D69sus4 ] Dm C :] pre-verse but mine’s longer.
    _ 123 4 123 4
    Neil: 4 [: Dm Am ] Dm Am :]

    Me: [ Dm D69sus4 ] Dm D69sus4 ] Bb F ] C ] verse
    123 4 123 4 12 34 1234
    Neil: [ Dm Am ] Dm D69sus4 ] Bb F ] Csus C ]

    Me: [Bb F ] C Dm ] Gm Dm ] C ] Bb F ] ] chorus
    12 34 12 34 12 34 1-4 12 34
    Neil: [ Bb F ] C Gm Gm/A ] Bb F ] C Dm C ] Bb F ]
    12 34 12 34 – 12 34 12 3 4 12 34

    Me: [ C Dm ] Gm Dm ] C ]]
    12 34 12 34 1 – 4
    Neil [ C G/b ] B B b5 ] Bb A ]]
    12 34 12 34 12 34
    Reading it back to myself, the pre-verse bit, only the Dm in the half bar is the same.
    In the verse, the 2nd bar and 3rd bar are the same.
    In the chorus, only the 1st and 5th bar are the same. Looking at this at 1st glance one might assess the progressions to be mostly different looking at the %age. However, in my adaptation, the tempo is about the same, the feel or swing is the same, the syncopation I class as similar. Neils lead guitarist uses a wah pedal as so do I but different guitar licks. But the words and vocal melody line is very different. ( I would like to note here, and readers may find this interesting – that I wrote the chorus later than the verses, and just doodled around, not really influenced by Neil Morse, and still came up with 2 bars the same.)

    On another track, I came up with a 3 chord turnaround type ‘riff’, and realized I must have been influenced by Whiteheart’s song “The Cry”. I guess this shows how easy it is to come up with something u had previously heard & perhaps forgot about it, not realizing u have just unconsciously regurgitated (yeah like a baby) something familiar. Writing it in say, 8 over 4 time it looks like this: transposed to my Dm use :

    Me: 8 [: Dm Csus4 C :] repeats for a bit
    _ 1234 56 78
    Whiteheart: 8 [: Dm Csus4 C :]
    1234 -56 -78

    Me: [: Dm Csus4 C :] slight change for whiteheart in verse
    1234 56 78
    Whiteheart [: Dm G Gsus4 C :]
    12 -34 -56 -78
    My tempo is about the same. My Syncho is similar. But they use heavier overdrive in gtr tones.
    Thank u very much for your help.
    Phil Kaunesis

    • Hi Phil:

      I’m not a lawyer, so you need to know that my reply here doesn’t equate to legal advice. But I can say that in general, chord progressions are not protected by copyright. I say “in general” because often songwriters will inadvertently borrow more than the progression. They’ll borrow the groove, the backing rhythms, perhaps other aspects such as tempo, and fragments of melody.

      In that regard, a chord progression borrowed can get you in trouble, if it also simulates the basic groove, sound and feel of someone else’s protected song. That’s the lesson learned in the “Blurred Lines” case with Robin Thicke.

      In a legal case, it is my understanding that it becomes a judgement call as to whether copyright has been breached. That’s why these cases often go to court — someone needs to judge whether a line has been crossed.

      For you, I would simply get a musically-minded friend to listen to your track, and to the song from which you borrowed elements. If they find that they’re hearing a similarity, that’s an indication that you’re getting close — perhaps too close — to someone else’s song.

      Hope that helps,

      -Gary

      • Hi, Gary –
        I don’t write music, just lyrics. Is it OK for me to design my lyrics using the rhythmic framework of a famous artist’s song? For example, let’s say I utilize the famous artist’s lyrics as a visual guide and I would write my lyrics with the same emphasis/pulse on each line (if his second word on the first line is emphasized, so is mine, etc.), as well as the fact that the number of lines would be the same as his. Thanks.
        Gina

        • Hi Gina:

          This might be a good question for a copyright lawyer, but my understanding is that any lyric (or melody) that reminds you in any obvious way of the original lyric or melody is going to be a problem. I can’t see how borrowing the rhythmic structure of a lyric would get you in trouble, unless you were borrowing enough of the actual words of the original to cross that line.

          -Gary

  8. Hi,im kenyan and want to sing passenger let her go and change into kiswahili language,with different meaning, is it ok

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  10. I know this is an old thread but if you could answer a question for me I would be thankful Gary. I am not a professional artist and I have only written a few instrumental pieces for the piano. I was considering uploading them to itunes for the heck of it. The only thing I’m worried about is some random person suing me or banning my account because they believe I have copyrighted a section of a song. After all there are billions of songs out there and I can’t check each and every one to make sure my pieces aren’t violating anything. Is there any way to check whether any of my work contains anything which might be considered copyright or anything similar and if so how? I would also like a quick run-down of possible violations to copyright laws, nothing overly detailed just the basic dos and don’ts.

    • Hi Beau:

      I’ll preface what I write here by saying that I am not a lawyer, and so I can’t offer anything that would equate to legal advice. Having said that, I think the fear of accidentally using someone else’s music is a real fear that many musicians experience. The best advice I can give is to play your music for others, and ask people you know and trust if anything you’ve written sounds familiar. A person claiming that you have violated their copyright would need to have proof. There’s no other way that I’m aware of that would affirm that your music is free and clear of any copyright violations.

      Before you post anything for the public to listen to, it’s important that you register the copyright of your songs. You can do this as a collection — in other words, you can register the copyright of a collection of songs, for one fee. Do a Google search for your country’s copyright (or intellectual property) office. Copyright is automatic, but a simple copyright won’t offer you much protection against someone claiming the song is theirs. You must register the copyright.

      Once you’ve registered the copyright, it would be difficult for someone to claim a song as theirs unless they wrote a similar song and registered the copyright prior to your registration. In that case, assuming you accidentally violated their copyright, it’s usually a simple matter of taking the music down, or (after discussion with the real copyright holder) reassigning authorship and royalties.

      But my experience is that accidental copyright is rare. I’d say register your songs, put them up, and let others enjoy them!

      -Gary

  11. Is it okay to use a famous chord progression and play it with roughly the same rhythm, but change to order of the chords? I’m making a song that uses The famous riff from Smoke on the water by deep purple but I’m playing it in a different order. Would that be okay?

  12. Hi Gary, my husband and I live in a very small town. I sing and he plays keyboard and records. We want to rewrite an 80’s r&b song and change it from a secular one to a contemporary gospel one. Similar to Alicia Keys, “If I ain’t got you” I have heard that song recorded as, “If I Ani’t Got You Jesus”. Same concept but different meaning. My husband is playing the music and I am singing it. We don’t know how to go about possibly using it. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Angie:

      What you’re wanting to do likely comes under the category of a “derivative work”, and you need the permission of the copyright holder.

      -Gary

    • Do you mean making a track that has the same notes as another that you’ve made in the past? Self-plagiarizing isn’t specifically a problem unless you’re a recording artist, and you’ve switched labels so that you’re plagiarizing something that’s been released under the previous label. In that sense, it is possible to plagiarize yourself.

      If you simply mean using the same melody notes as another song you’ve heard, then no, that is not acceptable, and would be a fairly clear case of plagiarism

      -Gary

  13. Hi! What happens If:

    I take a chord progression of a song in the key of D minor at 103bpm and speed it up,to 110bpm and change everythin’ as you said “playing it using a completely new tempo and new basic rhythm” and in a different key with some scales and modes on it, is that legal? Can I get sued? Anyway, I hope you can give me some advice with this. Thanks for Reading..

    • Yes, if all you’re taking is the chord progression. In that case, the new tempo would be irrelevant, since most people would barely notice a difference between 103 bpm and 110 bpm. If you take any song’s chords, play them as is, but with a unique backing rhythm and unique melody, that should be completely fine.

      Even if it bore an uncomfortable resemblance, keep in mind that suing is not likely to be the likely course of action anyway. In most cases, accidental (or even purposeful, for that matter) plagiarism is dealt with first by the copyright holder making its case directly to the alleged offender. So even if your song is seen to be too similar, you’d likely get an opportunity to “fix” the situation before being threatened with a lawsuit.

      -Gary

      • Really? Even if the Song’s Chord Progression was sampled from another song?
        I just changed the Key to C minor and speed it up to 110bpm and it doesn’t sound like the other song. /: So, what can I do? Or what should I do?

        Thanks for replyin’

        Thanks for Replyin’.

  14. Hello Gary. I’ve read a couple of your posts that’s helped me tremendously with my songwriting (how to write verses that yearn for a chorus). But I’m in a dilemma. I don’t have so much money to have original backing tracks made so I use the backing tracks of popular (and not-so-popular) songs as the backing tracks where I create new melodies and lyrics. But I feel like I’m doing something illegal because I intend to create my very first EP, although not for profit, using those “somewhat illegal songs” so as to break into the music industry. Is it okay? Even though I write the names of the songs I think I’m covering e.g the name of the song I wrote is Perfect but I used the backing track of Taylor Swift’s Blank Space, so I write: Perfect (Blank Space cover)? I’ve searched the whole of the Internet (I think), but I haven’t seen anything useful. Please help. Thanks in advance. 🙂

    • That’s getting into a new kind of area in the songwriting world, as it’s now relatively easy to find backing tracks that have been created and used by others. I’ll preface my thoughts by saying that I’m not a lawyer, and when it comes time to make your EP, you will definitely want (need) to get professional legal advice.

      My opinion is that you are probably infringing on the already-existing song’s copyright. The reason that we’re OK using another song’s chord progression is that that progression has probably been used hundreds of times, and merely using a chord progression won’t necessarily make your song sound like another. But if you use their chords, their rhythms, their bass lines, their guitar lines, and so on… now you’re using enough of the song that even without the original melody line and lyrics, your song will sound like the original. And that’s really what the copyright is meant to do – to prevent us from using enough of the protected song that we benefit from the strengths of that original song.

      There’s nothing wrong with taking a hit song and borrowing its chord progression. But the implication is that you’re going to come up with you own rhythms, bass lines, guitar lines, etc.

      As I say, you’ll want to get professional legal advice on this, but I’d say that using another song’s backing tracks (even though you credit the original song) is probably going to be seen as infringement.

      Hope this helps.
      -Gary

    • you can use instrumentals from a taylor swift song as long as you arent making money off of it. It’s like a mixtape rappers do it all the time a mixtape is literally a whole album of original lyrics over other people’s beats. this way it gives people a reason to listen to it because its recognizable.

  15. Another doubt… chords names usually include a bass note. For example: , F/A, C/B, Am/G, Dm/C#, etc. Is this a copyright issue? I know that bass line is copyright protected. So, can chord progression includes bass notes?

  16. It is very interesting. I have a doubt… what if I make a sheet music of a famous song based in chords progression, with its original song tittle and credits ? (a real sheet music of any famous song without music-STAFF, without melodies.) Can I publish a song names list (and credits) in my web ??? Can I publish chords progression, song name or tittle, and credits of any famous song in my web without permission?
    So, Everybody can use a chords progression sheet music in order to play any song at home without permission, right?

    • Hi Rafael:

      I’m not a lawyer, but I would guess that no, you can’t do that. It’s true that chord progressions aren’t protected by copyright, but that’s because many songs use the same chord progression. But if you make sheet music using a famous song’s progression, and then use the title of the famous song, you’ve done more than use the chords. By using the title, you also imply everything else about the song that makes it uniquely someone else’s (i.e., especially the lyrics).

      Also, there is a myth that as long as the original writers are given credit, that it’s OK to use their material. But copyright doesn’t only establish ownership, it gives all rights to copy or use that material to the owner of the copyright. In order to use someone’s material, you need their permission.

      In copyright law, you can use parts of a protected work, for instructional purposes only. What you’re proposing is to create sheet music with the chords, with the title at the top. I would guess that it’s probably going a bit beyond what the intent of the law provides.

      -Gary

  17. Hello Gary,
    Thank you for lots of interesting comments. I have one question here. If I take a published piano tutor and record/improvise a backing track on a piano to one of the pieces, say Postman Pete, which would go on with basic harmony and rythm like alberti basses I presume that it is OK. But is it still OK to post it online and call it ‘Postman Pete from Book1 by Aaron’ ? What do you think? Thank you! 🙂

    Ondrej

    • If I understand copyright law (and I am not a lawyer, so don’t take this as advice as much as it’s an opinion!), the issue is whether you’ve used enough of an existing song to make the listener “hear” the original tune. A simple chord progression is not usually a problem, since many songs use the same progression. If the music you’re creating happens to “work with” another piece, but on its own doesn’t sound like or copy the original piece, I think you’d be in the clear, but it’s getting a bit close to copyright infringement.

      Also, the fact that you’d name your piece after the original piece I think brings it even closer to infringement. I think the best advice might be to contact a copyright lawyer, or see if anyone online in the legal profession has a blog or forum that might answer the question for you.

      Simple chord progressions are no problem. Once you start adding in other musical elements (rhythm, tempo, instrumentation, etc.), it starts to become problematic.

      That’s how I see it,
      -Gary

  18. My sons school took the song don’t stop believing but only changed the lyrics , and they still sounded like the journey song . Is this legal? I feel the school should have to pay as they made copy’s of the assembly and will sell the DVDs .

    • Hi Melissa:

      That probably cannot be done without permission from the copyright holder(s). And the copyright holder has the right to simply not allow that. It depends, of course, on how fussy they might get with a school doing that. I do think that US copyright law allows for creating a parody, as part of the “fair use” clause. (See here) But I doubt that someone can simply change words to a song without permission.

      Gary

  19. With regards to writing a parody to a song that has been published and not in Public Domain You must contact the Publisher/:s and ask for permission and it will be their decision if you can or not,do it .

  20. If you use the chords of another song with the same bass line and the same rhythm
    and use it , with other lyrics and another melody you have infringed a production of another song The Beatles were sued by Chuck Berry for copying one of his bass lines , be very careful In view of latest nonsense where they copied a feel of a song be very careful

  21. Hi Gary,

    Thank you for your thoughtfully detailed response.

    I tend to agree with your perspective that the lyric/poem would stand on its own – as long as one doesn’t try to sing it to copyrighted music without the proper permissions.

    Copyright law can be a rigid animal, but I think it would have to bend quite a bit to claim inspiration from an existing “lyricless” melody resulting in a lyric/poem violated any part of their melody.

    Rewriting lyrics to any existing song (where we also agree) is another issue — unless it is a parody.

    I’ve never seen my question posed before – but I am glad to see that your angle of vision is similar to mine.

    Thank you for your time and good thoughts.

    George

    PS

    Parody is another area where I have never been able to get a clear legal definition what constitutes a lyrical parody. The definitions tend to vary depending on the legal source you access. I do know that parody doesn’t necessarily mean comedic.

  22. Hi Gary,

    I have a lyric writing question.

    May an existing, copyrighted instrumental song (without any known/published lyric) be used as a “pattern” to write a lyric/poem — and stand as a poem on its own?

    (Ex: To readers if I’m not being clear.)

    Presume “Misty” or “Moon River” had been released as instrumentals (again) with no published or known lyrics

    I write a lyric/poem that fits* those particular melodies. 100% my words

    As long as I don’t record/use the melody WITH the lyrics… Are the words mine to copyright as rhyming poetry?

    Thanks for your respected consideration – and I understand you are not giving legal advice as an attorney.

    George in Minnesota

    *Note: When reading a lyric/poem it will always vary from the actual rhythmical value of the written musical notation.

    • Hi George:

      As you say, I’m not a lawyer, so this is only an opinion, not legal advice. My thoughts are that you’d be fine doing so. The lyric on its own would be protected by a copyright that is automatically assigned to you. The fact that it could be sung to a piece of instrumental music that is not your own wouldn’t really enter into the issue. Let’s say that at some point someone wanted to record the instrumental song with your lyrics. I assume they would need your permission, plus the permission of the copyright holder of the music.

      In a sense, it’s merely the reverse of the issue where Person A wants to set Person B’s poem to music that Person A has written. As the composer, Person A would need the permission of Person B in order to do so.

      Perhaps a lawyer could weigh in on this, because it might get tricky. For example, what if you took “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and wanted to create a new lyric for the music? Does the copyright holder of “Bridge” get to say “no”? In that case, I assume they do. Since Paul Simon is the sole writer, I assume that he can prevent the new lyric.

      Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts!
      -Gary

  23. Thanks you for the advice. I dont know if they will use that song. And I honestly dont feel comfortable even speaking with the one member I met because he left me hanging for a month without any feedback or letting me know they went with someone else. The thought of having to keep track of the songs makes me sick. I just want to let it go and just keep my portion of the melody and lyrics. How can anyone leave a singer/writer/musician hanging for a month….when the initial meeting was amazing. The second song didnt go so well and thats why they moved on in my opinion. I mean its just courtesy to let me know right away if they are moving on. Do I really need to be paranoid that they are using the melody lyrics, I think most artists like myself really dont want to get into legal discussions especially when so little work is done, and noone involved is a well known superstar.

  24. I have a similar issue as others here but not exactly. I was almost in a new band, and was given a music track to write to. I wrote something really great, that was accepted. One of the best things Ive written. Melody and lyrics. The band ended up going with a guy, and also I only met the main music writer. So I want to keep the melody and lyrics. I have recorded accapela on video and its online..but how can I make this truly mine? I was thinking of having someone help me with a piano arrangement as opposed to the prog rock guitar track I wrote to. I want to make this my own song and perform it live. The guy said something like I can take the lyrics to another song if I want (obviously…I wrote them) but melody and lyrics mean I need somewhat the same progression. help?

    • You may need to get some legal assistance with this one, and I can only weigh in on this as a non-specialist in the legal world. In other words, don’t take what I’m saying on this as legal advice.

      As far as I know, if you’ve added melody and lyrics to a track (by which I’m assuming you mean that they gave you a recording of chords and instrumental arrangement), you’re basically co-writing, and it may be the sort of thing where even if you decide to go ahead and try to make it your own, the creator of the track that was given to you might have a claim to a copyright share. But I am not a lawyer, and so as I say, it sounds like you need to get the opinion of someone in the legal field.

      Even though the band went with someone else instead of you, I assume they’re going to go ahead with the song, including your melody and lyrics. So it’s a co-write. You can go ahead and do a new arrangement of that melody and lyric, including changing the chords, the instrumentation, even the genre. But it sounds to me as though this will always be a co-write no matter what. That band needs to know that anything that happens to that song (including copyright, royalties, etc.) needs to include you as a co-writer. Copyright is shared equally no matter who contributed how much. Royalties, and anything that comes from the sale and/or performance of the song need to be shared according to an agreed-to contract. My advice (to repeat, I’m not a lawyer) is to work that out amicably, and get writing your next song.

      -Gary

  25. It happens all the time. He’s So Fine vs My Sweet Lord, Alan Parson’s Eye In The Sky vs Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now. Every once in a while someone’s going to have an idea for a song that either coincidentally sounds like another, or subconsciously use a musical phrase that they didn’t realize ey had heard before.

  26. I appreciate it’s a tough one. But I guess if I lifted a complete set of chords with the same rhythmic tempo and put down an entirely different melody over it, starting melodic phrases in different places to the original with differing phrase lengths etc., the majority of people wouldn’t even recognise that the two songs were derived from the same canvas. In fact I was curious about this and I tried it out with my sister just today. She is a piano teacher with an excellent ear and particularly good at spotting even the remotest lift. I played the chords of “Michelle” by The Beatles (which she loves) on guitar and sang a completely different melody over the top, making sure it was nothing like the original melody. She could not for the life of her see the similarity before I had told her! I was amazed. I think melodic lifts are far easier to spot than chordal ones. Has anyone ever heard of a court ruling of copyright infringement based solely on chord progression? I’d be really curious! Thanks for that Gary. Alan

  27. Hi Gary. Quick question: Is it copyright infringement if I were to record the chords of a well-known song on acoustic guitar (just the chords – nothing else) in the same rhythm as the original (or a close interpretation) and sell it on a cd (say)? God knows it would be awful but would it still be an infringement? 🙂 Thanks,
    Alan

    • One of the most important aspects of copyright infringement is the general similarity between songs. Chord progressions are usually exempt from copyright protection because they are used over and over again in so many different songs. But once you take a particular song’s progression, and then add the same rhythmic treatment, perhaps using a similar instrumentation… you’re starting to get into dangerous territory. The truth is that you’re probably in a grey area with this. It’s why high-profile cases go to court and infringement has to be determined, and it’s not usually an easy task. My instincts would tell me that if you are purposely using someone else’s chord progression, along with the rhythms that were used in the first place, I wouldn’t go there.

      -Gary

  28. Hi there Gary – can you give me some advice please?

    I answered an ad – a muso with a ‘finished’ instrumental track wanted a vocal melody and lyric written over it. He said I could do it on the basis he liked the tunes on my website.

    I wrote it almost immediately as I really liked his track and melodic guitar line. He gave me no brief for the lyrics and only guidance on the style of the melody – he said he liked Toto, Marillion and modern bands like Coldplay and wanted ‘just something that fits’ and ‘something melodic’ and ‘something special’.

    When I’d written it I sent him the lyric – which he rejected out of hand because it was political/environmental. And then he became anxious that my tune would be too ‘Beatles’ – my main influence.

    I told him it would basically sound like one of my tracks with his production, and not to worry because the tune was a strong one as he’d briefed in fact, packed with sus4, 6th and b5 notes in the tune – if he didn’t like my performance he could always get a real rock singer involved, because a good song is a good song. I even offered to re-write the lyric, but said I’d probably do my own version with the existing one.

    In fact he did reject the tune as well. I had told him that as far as I was aware because we had collaborated the melody/lric couldn’t now be separated from his track/riff, because a finished song had been created, but he said he hadn’t heard the tune and so was entitled to reject it – it was never a completed song despite our intent to collaborate.

    That being the case I agreed we could go our separate ways – I would take my melody and lyric and do my own version without using any of his melodic parts – and he’d find another tune to fit, though I felt it a shame.

    I even said I would give him a percentage (not sure if I have to credit him as co-writer officially?)

    But he said I couldn’t use his chord progression… as far as I know, because there’s nothing special about his chords, I should be able to use them (C#m B F# and then E A B for the other section). However, I have actually written a song using hi strack as inspiration… what’s the law on this?

    It would seem absurd if I can’t use my tune. But do I have to credit him as co-writer? If I do he may be able to block any licence and so on. I spent a great deal of time writing a perfectly good song and now it’s possibel I can’t use it – because to use different chords would be to mess it up in a bizarre and awful way.

    I feel like I’ve done nothing wrong here and bent over backwards to make this work, and he’s got very angry about it, even threatening me with legal action if I were to use his chords.

    Cheers in advance! K

    • I’ll preface all this by saying I am not a lawyer, so any comments I make on this are purely my opinion, and not to be construed as legal advice.

      If I am understanding the situation, you provided a melody and lyric to someone who had a chord progression that he “created”. He rejected your melody and lyrics. My take on it is that even though you wrote the melody based on his chord progression, it’s not really a collaboration in the normal sense of that word. In other words, I believe that the melody can be separated from the chord progression. If that weren’t possible, I’d write Paul McCartney and tell him that because I wrote a new melody over the chords of “When I’m 64”, he and I are songwriting partners.

      Parts of this are simple to answer. Simply put, he cannot make a legal claim to that chord progression. Those particular chords that you mention have been used in thousands (or more) songs, and it’s why chords are not protected by copyright. You have nothing to worry about. Regarding the melody: if you wrote the tune, you own the tune, and he doesn’t. You may have written the melody at his request, but as I say, it’s not a collaboration in the normal sense of that word.

      A chord progression has the same legal status as an idea: not protected by copyright. So if I say, “I’ve got a great idea for a song: I’m going to sing F-major arpeggios over a C-G drone using the Book of Exodus as my lyric,” I haven’t done anything yet that’s protected by copyright. If you actually do it before me, then it’s protected by copyright. It’s the same thing with chords.

      So in my *unofficial* opinion, you could take your melody and lyrics, and then take “his” chord progression, and owe him nothing. But having said that, if you’re really worried about it, you might want to get legal advice.

      I’ll also say that the adage “Once bitten, twice shy” is a great one. Be VERY careful when answering ads. If you really think that it’s your ticket to success to answer ads like this (and it usually isn’t), you need to get an agreement in writing (signed, etc) before you send them anything. But whenever I see ads like this, my first reaction is to run away from my computer screaming “FIRE!”

      Cheers,
      -Gary

  29. Thanks for the answer. It actually sounds similar to the original, especially because I used similar synth patch, but it is also different. Could you possibly help me if I send you the samples to listen and compare? I tried to send you an e-mail from the website but unsuccessfully. Best Regards

  30. Hello, great post! I just wanted to ask you whether I can use the rhythm of a chord progression, and change the chords (different scale with different chords); the rhythm is simple, but the chords are changed in a similar fashion in both compositions? Thanks in advance! Best Regards

    • I think I’d need to hear an example of what you’re talking about. Rhythms are not protected by copyright. You are only treading on thin ice if your song reminds the listener strongly of the original tune. For example, if you like the opening piano chords, and the rhythmic way they’re played, of “Saturday in the Park” (Am7-D9-Dm7-C), and you choose to do the same rhythmic approach, but substitute the chords with others (for example, Fmaj7-Am7-G9-Am9), that would be too similar, and you could be in breach of copyright.

      -Gary

  31. what about using a line from a song in the lyrics; Making a play on them… but the line is well known in that song… is that illegal?

    • Generally, a quick quoting of a line from a well-known song, in a kind of parody fashion, is usually OK. I’ve never heard of anyone being taken to court over that sort of thing.
      -G

  32. What about create backing tracks ‘in the style of’? For example, can I legally create a backing track with drums, bass, guitar, and keys that is essentially the same as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing and sell it as a karaoke version or guitar jam track ‘In the style of Don’t Stop Believing by Journey’? There would not be any melody – just rhythm tracks. This is a purely legal question – not ethical or moral. I use Journey as an example.

    • Hi Sylvester:

      I’m not a lawyer, but I believe that part of the determination of copyright infringement has to do with how similar one song is to another. So even though chord progressions, basic rhythms, instrumentation and so on (i.e., backing tracks) are not protected by copyright, it becomes a problem if you borrow all of those elements from a well-known song, put them together, and try to call it your own song. Once a legal determination is made that what you’ve done is too similar to something else, that’s when the line gets crossed.

      -Gary

  33. I recorded a melody with the lyrics on a small type recorder and took it into a music store in a local mall and asked to have the same played with a piano to see how it woudl sound. The pianist played it on a piano that added cords, etc. and I really loved it. It was exactly what I mean’t for it to be, but of course I can’t play it. The piano recorded it all on a CD for me to keep. Can this version be the official version for my copyright?

  34. Pingback: Can a Composer Copyright Chord Progressions? | MusicLicensingSolution.com

  35. Hi, a guy sent me some music and I wrote the lyrics and vocal melody to his music. His music is keyboard based r&b sound.He’s decided to mess me around. Can I take my vocal melody/lyrics and use the same chords but make a use a rock backing myself and release the song or a ballad?

    • This might be a little complicated. When you say that he sent you music, I’m assuming that he sent you something like chord progressions with rhythms. You then added a melody and you had a product that was considered finished, correct?

      If this is the case, it really all depends on whether you and/or he have a finished song. If he’s got a recording of your melody and lyrics added to his music, he is probably thinking that the song is complete, and it probably is. In that case, the best course of action would be to try to work out an agreement with him regarding sharing copyright, royalties, etc. It also depends on what you mean by him “messing me around.” Do you mean that he’s taken your melody and lyrics, and now considers the song to be his? If that’s the case, and if there is potential money in this, you need to get some legal advice to see what you can do.

      All this serves to remind us that it’s always best to get an agreement in writing before partnering with someone on creating music. I hope this situation can be solved for you, because it’s usually a bit messy, and it can be very stressful.

      Good luck!
      -Gary

      • It would also make a difference if he did a copyright of the material, if not the first one to
        get one has the song rights.

  36. This post is very useful- thank you. I would like to ask a similar questions about groups of notes as part of a tune. There have been times I have been writing and there was a song in the background because someone was watching the TV. I heard this and thought: if I had those notes to work from, I would take the melody in this or that direction and then I got so carried away that I forgot all about how I got these ideas until years later. Sometimes I have used 3 of the same notes in a row but at a different tempo and in the context of a tune that goes of in a different direction. I did the same thing when I heard a film soundtrack. Twice we have 3 of the same notes in the same order but whilst I was listening to it, I said to myself, “I would take those notes in this direction” and wrote a melody with a tighter structure as opposed to the soundtrack I heard that does not have regularly repeating choruses and verses. This particular song has words which the soundtrack doesn’t, but although my melody is faster, has words to go with is and is more structured, they both have a similar cultural sound. Is this allowed?

    • In general, the issue of whether or not a song has been plagiarized relies heavily on whether or not a song sounds like the original. It is usually fine to take 3 successive notes from an existing song, because those 3 notes will not necessarily lead anyone to say, “This new song is just a copy of an old one.” In fact, what you describe (taking an existing song, changing the tempo, etc., has been done quite often. As I mentioned in the post, “Hey There” from “Pajama Game” uses the same first notes (considerably more than 3) of a Mozart piano sonata. So if you’re plan is to take 3 notes, and develop them in a different direction than the original tune, it should be fine. It gets trickier, of course, if the chords, rhythm, instrumentation, and other elements, are also used from the original. The best advice is to play your creation for several people, and see if they notice a similarity.

      Good luck!
      -Gary

      • Thank you Gary. It is an unusual song to consider in a way because it does not have the ordinary verse-chorus repetitive structure. It only uses the same notes for about 15 seconds and then the writer changed the phrases, style and instruments. Thank you for your insightful post. It gives me a few things to think about…..

        Thanks again : )

      • It must be said, though, that everything Mozart created is in the public domain. You can do whatever you want with it, without having to worry about copyright infringement.

  37. Thank you for the reply, Gary

    I work in a dance genre and use pretty much the same instruments as everyone with the same sidechain pads etc. I already discovered I used the progressions from existing dance tracks, with a lot of instruments similar actually, though my progressions are a bit modified…As I understood with the borrowed chord progressions as long as one is using different melody (with occasional similar leaps, cos the notes will be the same anyway because of the key), different rhytmic motives, evidently different lyrics:) and more or less different beats everything is completely legal, am I right?

    As dance music got into mainstream, everyone is trying to copy the sound and almost any pop record I could hear recently is similar to some other songs….. And in the world of club music the same chords are just normal….

  38. Hi Gary,
    Thank you for this post, but I would also like to ask about rhythmic motives, are they protected? Because I often find my melodies sound a bit familiar to what I’ve heard somewhere, mainly not because of the melody (the notes are different), but rhythmic melodic motives are close to something already published. Sorry for posting it here, just did not find an answer so far

    • The issue of rhythmic motif is a tricky one to answer. Personally, I’ve not heard of someone’s authorship being challenged based on the similarity of the rhythms to another song. In general, you’ll want to avoid anything that reminds someone else of another song. The only exception to that would be song title and chord progressions, both of which are not protected by copyright.

      I’d recommend playing it safe. If your song’s rhythms come close to reminding you of another song, see if you can get the same effect by altering your song’s rhythms. It’s usually quite easy to do this, and avoids having anyone think you’re trying to ride the popularity of an already-established song.

      -Gary

  39. Right.. I believe that’s what I said. I only suggested using a different tempo as a way of generating something unique and creative. Chord progressions are not protected by copyright, and most certainly tempos are not.

    -Gary

  40. Actually, copying a chord structure and using the same tempo of an existing song is perfectly legal, and deos not infringe anyone elses copyright whatsoever. If this was illegal Spice Girls and various other pop acts wouldn’t have ever made a record. All their songs are ‘influenced’ by other hit tracks. Creating new songs over exisitng hits goes on all the time in the pop charts. One listen to the top 40 and this will become obvious.

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