5 Ways to Know If You’ve Accidentally Plagiarized Someone Else’s Song

Here’s a list of 5 easy things to try if you think you may have mistakenly copied someone else’s song.


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Accidental plagiarismYou’d think that plagiarizing would happen a lot more than it does. You’d think that with a limited number of notes that we’d be hearing about accidentally copying someone else’s tune all the time. But there are more than enough notes, chords, rhythms and melodies that await discovery. It’s not usually a concern.

But you may find that some songs come together so easily for you that you worry that you’ve accidentally plagiarized someone else’s song. Surely you can’t have thought up that song so easily!

If you’ve written a song and you have that nagging feeling that you’ve heard it somewhere before, there are things you can do that will confirm either that you’re the real author, or that you’ve innocently taken another writer’s song that’s been sitting on the back burner of your brain:

  1. Play the song for someone else. Hum the song with a simple guitar or keyboard backing. Humming allows the listener to judge the music without being distracted by the lyrics.
  2. Try the song at different tempos. You may have inadvertently “borrowed” someone else’s song, and changing the tempo to something faster or slower may reveal a bit more of the original song.
  3. Move the song’s key higher, and then lower. A song can sound dramatically different as you move it upward or downward in pitch (key). That’s because vocal energy changes the way the song comes across. In moving it around, you may eventually discover a different song suddenly popping into your mind.
  4. Try the song with a different time signature. Most of the time, pop songwriters will use 4/4 time, a time signature comprised of alternating strong and weak beats. If your song sounds uncomfortably familiar to you, you might try trying to fit it into a 3/4 time signature, which is usually a strong beat followed by two weak beats. (For example, here’s “Hey Jude“, reworked into 3/4 time.)
  5. Put the song away and take it out a few days later. Sometimes we get so close to the music we write that we can’t really “hear it” anymore. Putting a song away is a great idea not just to solve authorship issues like this, but can also help you come up with good alternate chords, fix a bit of lyric that’s not working, and to come up with new instrumental ideas. By putting the song away for a week or so, and then giving it another listen, you have the advantage of hearing it with fresh ears. Often, if accidental plagiarizing has happened, hearing your song again after a week-long absence may prod your memory.

Once you’ve done those things, if you still can’t identify a song that you fear you’ve accidentally copied, relax and claim it! You’ve probably written it, and it’s just a simple matter of the ease with which it came together was making you nervous.

Once you’ve performed the song a few times, if no one claims to have heard it before, you’re probably free and clear to do with it whatever you’d like.

______________Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.  (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”)

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4 Comments

  1. If I hear a contemporary song that sounds very much like an older song that I have heard but is not a cover of that older song, how would I contact the original artist to let them know that there is possibly a copyright infringement on their work?

    • This kind of infringement would be up to the copyright holder to pursue, which may likely be the publisher of the music. I would suppose that it would be possible to contact them via social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

      -Gary

  2. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – June 19, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  3. What are your song lines saying ! I ask myself that everytime, I search f
    for a melody that sounds wedded to the lyrics, if not the music can often
    convey another meaning , That is probably the bigest reason for the
    rejectionof a new song, Yes tempo and rhythmn contribute in a big way
    as well.

    Sleep on your songs and let your sub consious work on them, Its not
    about the expensive demo you had made, its about the song A good
    recording of a poor song, gets you no where. except in debt? in many
    cases

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