Originality is everything in songwriting. Every time you sit down to write, you obviously need to be writing something that no one else has written before.
It’s that need for originality that causes a kind of fear in some songwriters: the fear of accidentally plagiarizing someone’s song. In particular, some songwriters are afraid to spend too much time listening to music for fear that without knowing it, they’re simply going to start writing something that’s already been written.
Accidental plagiarism is an easy problem to solve, and that fear of it shouldn’t keep you from listening to music. In fact, active listening (here’s what active listening means) should be a daily activity. The more songs and genres you familiarize yourself with, the less likely accidental plagiarism will be.
But from time to time, it happens: you write something, and immediately someone tells you that it sounds like [“insert song title here“], and it can make you feel panicky.
Accidental plagiarism has many solutions, and they’re usually not that hard to implement because most of the time, it’s one aspect of a song that sounds familiar: a bit of chord/rhythm combination, or a bit of melody, or a bit of lyric, etc.
So generally, zeroing in on the bit that sounds uncomfortably familiar and making a change:
- Change the chords to help the melody sound unique;
- Change the direction of the melody at that point.
- Rewriting those couple of lines of lyric.
- Change the instrumentation/production.
- Change the tempo.
- Change your song from major to minor, or vice versa.
Listening to other people’s songs is a vital part of becoming a better songwriter. More benefit comes from listening than dangers. I can’t think of any good reason to limit how much music you listen to.
If you read any interview with veteran songwriters, they almost always mention other songs and songwriters that have been a strong influence on their musical direction. I can’t think of a single instance where a good songwriter has said, “I get most benefit by not listening to others.”
Accidental plagiarism will happen to anyone, and it’s almost never an indication of a lack of imagination, or a faulty writing process. It’s almost always a case of your musical memory leading you down a path that’s been imprinted in your brain from good songs you’ve heard in the past. It doesn’t happen as often as you think, and it’s almost always easily solved.
So keep listening. Immersing yourself in other people’s good songs on a daily basis, and allowing those songs to influence you, is one of the best ways you have to improve your songwriting skills.
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