Songwriter- Writer's Block

What You Can Copy From Another Song

We all know that songs need to be unique. You can’t take someone’s melody or lyrics and call them your own.

Most songwriters know, though, that chord progressions aren’t generally protected by copyright. So that’s certainly one element of a song that you can take and use, guilt-free.

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You can also use someone else’s title — usually. Even though titles are not typically protected by copyright, I’d recommend you steer away from calling your next song “Hey Jude”, “Rolling In the Deep”, or “Blowin’ In the Wind.”

Is there anything else that you can borrow or “steal” from someone else’s song that won’t get you in trouble? One of the most helpful parts of a song to take and use might be another song’s formal design.

By “formal design”, we’re simply talking about the structure of a song — the arrangement of verses and choruses and any other optional bits of someone else’s song.

How is borrowing a formal design helpful? In some cases, you may have snippets of musical ideas, but not be sure how to fit those ideas all together. Seeing how someone else solved that can be very helpful in your own process.

If you find borrowing another songwriter’s solutions a bit restricting, you can take parts of songs that are otherwise copyright protected, and manipulate them. Here are 3 quick ideas:

  1. Take a well-known melody and play it backwards.
  2. Take bits of lyric and change certain words to create something clever, humorous or thought-provoking. Weird Al does this when he “recreates” songs, and since copyright laws allow for parody renditions of songs, you can have a lot of fun with this without worrying about being on the wrong side of the law.
  3. Borrowing the feel of a song. Sometimes you get inspired by the general performance ideas that other singer-songwriters come up with. While being mindful that there is a limit to how much you can do this (remember “Blurred Lines?”), you can certainly take the tempo and basic backing rhythm feel and see where it takes you.

Generally speaking, though, the best way to keep the ideas flowing is to be listening a lot to music. The more you listen, the more your own sense of creativity and musical imagination extrapolates on those songs.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook BundleSometimes all you need are lists of chords to get the songwriting process started. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle includes “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” Use the suggested chords as is, or modify them to suit your own songwriting project.

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  1. I’m looking to make a song and release it. Can I reference a song within a song? Using a few lines in the chorus? So it’ll be a few of our own lyrics then say “singing, (other song lyrics) in the sun” if that makes sense?

  2. Hello
    I’m looking to use the lyrics and melody from and existing songs chorus in a new song. Eg. “the answer my friend is blowin in the wind, the answer is blowin in the wind.”

    The rest of the new song has its own melody separate from the copyrighted song.

    I’m confused as to what rights to purchase?

    It’s not a sample.
    It’s not a parody.
    Its in part a derivative work

    I want to do it the correct way, and I’d appreciate any guidance.

    Thank you
    Alchemyst Audio

    • I think it depends on how far your songwriting project is going to go. If it’s for singing at the local cafe, you’re probably going to be fine. But if you’re saying it’s not a parody, I think you’d better get some official legal advice on this one. Borrowing a phrase — two or three words arranged in a well-known way that might have also been used in the songs — is probably fine. Borrowing 16 words, arranged in exactly the same way that a pulitzer-prize-winning songwriter/lyricist has previously done in a Billboard-topping tune is probably crossing the line. Purchasing may not be possible if the writer isn’t selling.


  3. What about a song that references Bob Dylan several times throughout and the has the following coda:

    Could it be so simple then
    Will we find out in the end
    That the answer was blowing in the wind

    Asking for a friend

    • You may want a lawyer’s opinion, but my thoughts are that it would be fine. A passing reference (and using “was” and not “is”)… I can’t think that it would cause a problem.

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