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Using Public Domain Songs In Your Own Songwriting

If you find it hard coming up with great original melodies, you do have an option to consider: using a melody from a public domain song.

Public domain refers to the fact that the original copyright of a song has expired. In many countries copyright expires 70 years after the death of the copyright holder. If the copyright is held by several people, it expires 70 years after the death of the final surviving author.

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In the United States, copyright expires 75 years after a work is composed. It’s important to do some research before you make the assumption that copyright has expired. Every country has its own copyright laws. In Canada for example, copyright expires 50 years after the death of the author.

Why Use Public Domain Songs?

Of course, it begs the question: if you’re a songwriter, why would you want to use a song that’s 75 years old as material?

You might be surprised to know that melodies haven’t really changed all that much. Presentation, production, and the style of performance are certainly radically different today, but the actual structure of melodies is not really significantly different.

You likely know that Simon & Garfunkel had a hit with “Scarborough Fair” — a song whose melody comes from the 19th century, with lyrics from the 17th century. Songwriter Eric Carmen wrote at least two hit songs that borrowed melodies from composer Rachmaninoff: “All By Myself” and “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again.”

Where to Find Public Domain Songs

The Public Domain Information Project website is a great place to get started, at least for some basic information about public domain songs. They offer to sell printed copies of the songs, but don’t appear to show you an example of what you’re actually purchasing (at least I’ve not seen it), so I’d use the site for information only.

Public libraries usually contain collections of folk songs and other traditional melodies, and in my own composition and arranging work, I’ve spent more time in the Reference section of libraries than anywhere else.

Be careful with online searches (Google, YouTube, etc.). You won’t know for certain that you’re getting accurate information. But working online can at least get you moving in the right direction for finding songs. Don’t assume because a song is old that it is in the public domain. Some copyright holders will transfer copyright to other individuals, and copyright can be extended in that way.

How to Use Public Domain Songs

Think of a public domain song as a songwriting partner who is providing you with a melody you can use. Some tips, advice and info:

  1. There is no requirement that you must use the lyric that comes along with it.
  2. You can modify PD melodies if you’d like to make changes.
  3. There is no requirement to credit the original composer if that person is known, but I can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t.
  4. Try taking the melody, stripping away any chords if they’re provided, and harmonizing it your own way. (If you’re not sure how to choose chords to add to a melody, my eBook “How to Harmonize a Melody” will help.
  5. You can use small bits of PD songs, so feel free to compose your own verse melody and then use a PD song as the basis for your chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

If you like starting songs by working out the chords first, you need a proper method. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you exactly how to do it, and how to avoid some typical pitfalls. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

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  1. For older public domain songs like Greensleeves is it legal to leave the chorus but change the other stanzas?


  2. Hello Gary!
    Is it legal to use or rearrrange lyrics of PD songs to your own original music? Like, am I allowed to use the lyrics of a PD hymn, rearrange some words/phrases to suit the flow of my own music, and still be able to copyright it as my own?

    Waving at you all the way from the Philippines!
    Thank you!

    • Hello Faith:

      Yes, you can use public domain songs pretty much any way you’d like. Keep in mind, though, that this applies to the actual material of the song: the melody and lyrics. You can’t use an existing recording and modify it for your own recording, as the recording itself may (and likely IS) protected by copyright. But you can take a public domain song and reword it, or rework some of the phrases.

      You can read more about this at this website: “Copyright and the Public Domain.

      Hope this helps,

  3. I want to use the last part of the National Anthem at the end of an original song. Is this permissible? If so, will I be able to copyright it this way?

  4. If you find hard to come up with melodies, then you are lacking creativity. I prefer writing NOTHING than copying anything which has already been composed. It’s funny how people are trying to hide their lack of talent by finding excuses such as “having inspiration from other musics” etc, blah blah blah blah

    • That’s a good question Doug, and I’m not sure I know the answer. In my own writing, a do a lot of choral arranging of PD folk songs. I put a copyright notice at the bottom, but only with regard to the actual choral arrangement (“This arrangement ©2019 Gary Ewer”, for example). But when the composition itself is made up of part original and part PD song, I’m not sure what the legalities are.

      Any lawyers reading this able to comment?


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