Tom Petty

When Your Song Sounds Too Much Like Another One

Yesterday I wrote about how to take old melodies and make new ones. The end result should be a song that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original tune, and that’s the intent. That method should allow your own creativity to make something entirely new out of something old.

Having said that, unintentional plagiarism is a common fear amongst songwriters. There’s always that bit of panic that sits uncomfortably in the back of your mind, that the song you’ve just written sounds like something you’ve heard before. That panic exists particularly if the song you’ve just finished happened easily and quickly: surely I must have unintentionally stolen it, you think.

Most of the time your fears can be allayed by playing the song for someone else. If there really is a similarity, someone else will probably notice it too. But every once in a while you find that your song does in fact show an uncomfortable resemblance to an already-existing song. What do you do?

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Here are some tips that can help you deal with that situation. Some of these tips make small changes, others make large ones. How you deal with your own song will depend on how much you’ve unwittingly borrowed:

  1. Make changes to the melody. Most frequently, it’s the melody — not usually the lyric — that sounds like something else. And it’s more specific than that… it’s often the shape of the melody. So if you find that you’ve accidentally co-opted some other songwriter’s melody, change enough of your own that the shape is different. For example, if you find that the first 5 notes of your tune are the same as the first 5 notes of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” (starting on a high note and moving generally downward), rearrange your notes so that it moves generally upward. You may have to do more than that, but you’d be surprised how little you have to do in this regard to solve the problem.
  2. Make changes to the chords. Changing the chords underneath a phrase of melody that sounds like someone else’s can be enough to make a suitable difference. This may take some work, as simply substituting a IV-chord for a ii-chord won’t often be enough to make a noticeable change. So you may need to modify the chord structure of your song to something more radically different, and that will likely require you to rewrite the melody.
  3. Make changes to the lyrical rhythms and tempo. Let’s assume that you haven’t used the same lines of lyric — that’s an easy one to fix. But changing the lyrical rhythm and tempo of your song can be the unique treatment that will solve the problem. So if your uptempo song is making you think of DNCE’s “Cake By the Ocean”, target the tempo, and then the specific rhythms of your lyric. Try it as a slower ballad and see if you like it.
  4. Move into the opposite mode. If your song is in a minor key, and reminding you too much of “Stairway to Heaven”, try switching chords so that you’re now in a major key.

Unintentional plagiarism can happen, as Sam Smith found out when he wrote “Stay With Me“, and then found himself in discussion with Tom Petty’s publisher because of an obvious similarity to “I Won’t Back Down” (Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne). As Petty said at the time:

All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.

So it can happen to anyone. One solution is not to stop listening to music. In fact, the more you listen to music, the less likely plagiarism will occur, because your creative brain will be selecting ideas from an ever larger pool of music.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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