Where Have I Heard This Before? 6 Ways to Avoid Accidental Plagiarism

With only 7 notes in common use for any major or minor key, you’d think that the possibility of accidentally plagiarizing someone else’s song would be commonplace. How many ways can you rearrange notes to come up with something truly unique?

I’m sure some mathematician can come up with an actual answer for that, but it wouldn’t be a very relevant one. That’s because songs are more than their melody. There are other factors that make melodies differ from each other: rhythm, tempo, backing chords, lyrics and so on.


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Every composer of music I know has had the nagging feeling that they are accidentally plagiarizing something. That nagging feeling is usually one or both of the following:

  1. The song they’re working on is too reminiscent of some other song that they can’t bring to mind.
  2. The song is coming together quickly… too quickly for it to be something that hasn’t already existed.

If you’re working on a song and you wonder if you’re unwittingly copying something that you’ve heard before, what do you do?

The first step is not to panic. You’ve got time to fix the problem. No one will think worse of you for mistakenly thinking a musical idea is your own when it isn’t. It happens. The tricky part is confirming that you have (or haven’t) taken parts of an already-existing song and used them in your new one. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Play the song for a friend or family member. As writers of music, we can get a kind of blindness that makes it difficult to identify our own song ideas as coming from somewhere else. A friend can be a bit more objective about it.
  2. Play your song in a different tempo. Sometimes, a song that’s greatly slowed down or sped up will suddenly reveal where the ideas have come from.
  3. Try switching the time signature of your song. If the song in question is in 4/4 time (that’s most common in pop songwriting), try changing the time signature to 3/4 time. If you’re not too sure how to do this, read this post. Changing the time signature changes some of the rhythms, and that can suddenly reveal the actual source of your song.
  4. Change the key of your song. Try raising it a considerable amount, not just a semitone. By raising it by, say, a 4th, you’ll likely give it a completely different sound. The same is true for lowering the key. Put it a 4th or 5th lower, and you might suddenly discover that you’ve accidentally copied Cohen!
  5. Leave the song for a day or two, possibly a week, then play it for yourself again. The week away from it gives you some distance, and allows you to listen once more, but this time with a more objective ear.
  6. Change the chords and use some substitutes. By changing some of the chords, you may nudge it more clearly toward the song you’ve accidentally copied, and it may be easier to identify.

But Then… What Do You Do?

So if you have accidentally plagiarized a song, what do you do about it?

  1. The most easily recognizable element of a song is its melody, so if you find that you’ve grabbed someone else’s tune, you’ve obviously got to change that. And that’s simply songwriting, so it shouldn’t be a big deal (right?).
  2. If you’ve borrowed bits of melody, rhythm and chords, it may be safest to put the song aside and start a new one. Chords by themselves are not protected by copyright: you can use another song’s chord progression. But once you start using the chords and the rhythms, and then start using bits of melodic fragments from a pre-existing song, it becomes a slippery  slope, and possibly too much of a tangle to fix.
  3. Take melody ideas that are the ones you’ve mistakenly taken, and try reversing the direction of the melody. If you discover you’ve accidentally plagiarized parts of “Hello” (Adele), try reversing some of the melodic shapes, and perhaps also change the tempo and the backing chords. In other words, get rid of whatever is sounding too similar, and you should be OK.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. I often bass a new song on a Melody that was married to a hit song keeping the

    chord movements of that hit song but singing a new melody, then I find new

    words and end up substituting the original CHORDS and I have a new song

    Pro Writers do that all of the time I am informed

  2. I often bass a new song on a Melody that was married to a hit song keeping the

    chord movements of that hit song but singing a new melody, then I find new

    words and end up substituting the original l words and I have a new song

    Pro Writers do that all of the time I am informed

  3. Pingback: Where Have I Heard This Before? 6 Ways to Avoid Accidental Plagiarism - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

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