There are lots of tricks that composers have used over the centuries to create new melodies based on already-existing ones. Some ideas:
- Slowing a known melody down so much that it becomes unrecognizable as the original. Example: The first phrase of Mozart Piano No. 16 in C major served as the main melody for “Hey There“, from “The Pyjama Game” (Jerry Ross/Richard Adler)
- Borrowing a classical melody for the main themes of a pop tune. Example: Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” uses Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, 2nd movement as the theme for the verse and instrumental bridge.
- Using a public domain traditional folk song. If your arrangement is unique enough, no one will suspect that you’re simply using a tune that’s been around for decades, maybe even centuries. Example: House of the Rising Sun, recorded by The Animals, the tune for which has possible roots all the way back to the 16th century.
The best way to write consistently good song melodies is to understand how they support the lyrics. That partnership is a crucial part of songwriting success. Get the full story in Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” Get the 10-eBook Bundle today, and receive “Creative Chord Progressions” FREE.
If you’re looking for other ideas, let your imagination be your guide. Here are some other ways in which pre-existing songs can serve as the basis for a new song melody. Done well, no one will ever know you borrowed these ideas from songs already out there:
- Play an existing melody backwards. Take any song melody and play it backwards, note-for-note, with no rhythm. Get a sense of the melodic shape, and start to apply your own rhythms and lyrics. This technique can work well as a starting point for then adding your own original ideas.
- Invert an existing melody. Here’s how this works. Let’s say you’ve got a song melody in G major, one that starts on the note G, then moves up the scale until it hits D. To invert this melodic idea, you start on G, but you move down 5 notes until you hit C. Continue this way, and you’ve got an inverted melody. Again, it’ll work well as a starting point.
- Radically change the tempo of an existing melody. Caution: You don’t want to do this to a song protected by copyright, because simply changing the speed of a song still puts you in violation of that copyright. But it’s a great thing to do to a public domain folk song. If you decide that you’d like to try this with a copyright-protected song, you’ll need to contact the copyright holder(s) and get their permission.
- Combine a tempo change with a modal change. Let’s say you’re thinking of a song that’s got a quick tempo and uses the following chords: C F Dm G Dm G C. Try slowing the song down to a ballad tempo, and switch to a minor mode, giving you these chords: Cm Fm Ddim G Ddim/F G Cm. If it still sounds too much like the original for your liking, try some chord substitutions. For example, change the Ddim to Fm, and the G to Bb.
The first two ideas above will likely not have you in violation of copyright, because you’ll have come up with a completely new melody. Ideas #3 gives you the same melody, so just a reminder that you’ll want to try that one with a folk song or other public domain song, not a more newly composed song under copyright.
Idea #4 may still have you in violation of copyright if you use a copyright-protected song. It really depends on what you wind up doing to the original melody, so be careful with that one.
Looking through lists of public domain songs is going to give you a lot of ideas, so visit the PD Info (Public Domain Information) site. The site gives a comprehensive list of songs that have always been, or have now passed into, public domain.
When you use a song that you didn’t write, be sure to do your research. Don’t rely on word of mouth that a song is legal to use. The PD Info site should be a good guide for you, at least as a starting point.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.