Why Using Someone Else’s Chords Isn’t Plagiarism

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Rock SingerAs a songwriter, you should know that chord progressions don’t need to be amazing in order to work well. Most of the world’s biggest hits are built on progressions that, by themselves, are rather mundane. Almost by definition, a chord progression needs to be predictable. This is important. Chords that usually go where they sound like they should will strengthen the form of your song. And frankly, you probably aren’t going to come up with anything unique, after centuries of progressions being invented and used.

So don’t worry if you “invent” something that sounds familiar. It’s guaranteed that 99% of the progressions you use will be ones that have been used by someone else before.

We’d hopefully never use someone else’s melody or lyric without getting permission and sharing a writing credit. So why is it OK to use a progression that’s been used before?

There are two reasons. First, since the way progressions unfold from one chord to the next is largely predictable, it means that once you get going in a progression, you’re limited as to where you can go from there. Even when you incorporate a few deceptive moments, chord progressions are created using a small number of chords, with a restricted number of directions the progression can move.

Secondly, it’s very possible to create two entirely different songs, with entirely different melodies, lyrics, instrumentation, tempo and mood, that use the same chord progression. In other words, identical chord progressions can still allow songwriters the opportunity to create two unique musical experiences.

So listening to a verse of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Superstar” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”) would never make you think of a verse from Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle,” even though they start with the same progression (C  Eb  F  C…).

So go ahead. Borrow progressions. You have an almost infinite number of choices for a melody that will go with any set of chords.

The only cautionary note here is this: If you use the same progression as another song, you want to make sure that, in addition to the melody and lyric being different, that the tempo and the basic backing rhythms also bear little or no similarity to the song you borrowed it from. And in particular, the more distinctive a chord progression is, the more you’ll want to be doing to hide the song you borrowed it from.

So take a look at the following progressions, and bits of progressions, and see if one of them can serve as the basis for a new and unique musical experience:

“Let It Be” (The Beatles):
C  G  Am  F  C  G  F  C/E  Dm  C

“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (Queen)
D  G  C  G  D  G  C  G  D  Bb  C  D

“Addicted to Love” (Robert Palmer):
G  F  C  G

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana):
Am  D  C  F

“Firework” (Katy Perry):
G  Am  Em  C

An additional piece of advice here: If you want to use these progressions, it’s best not to start by listening to how the artists listed above used those same progressions. Clear your mind and treat the progressions like they’re your own.

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