Piano keyboard and guitar

Tips for Songwriters: Avoiding Accidental Plagiarism

Given the few notes within an octave and the millions of songs that have been written using them, accidental plagiarism is a constant companion for most songwriters. Every time you come up with a great songwriting idea — especially something that you really like — you’re immediately wondering if you’ve stolen the idea from an already-existing song.

A lot of the time, you haven’t. At least it’s not similar enough to worry about. But once in a while you’ll write something, and then become uncomfortably aware that it’s just too similar to some other song out there. What do you do?

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If it’s a chord progression, or even a song title that’s the same or too similar to another song, you’re probably in the clear. Chord progressions and song titles are not usually protected by copyright. So plagiarism means that you’ve copied someone else’s melody or lyrics. (The “Blurred Lines” case, though, indicates that even the basic feel and instrumentation, if it’s all too similar, can also be the subject of a legal proceeding).

Most of the time, the solution to accidental plagiarism is fairly simple. Try any of the following solutions for melodies that are too similar to something already out there:

  1. Try reversing the melody. This doesn’t always work, but it can offer interesting bits of new melody that you can build on if you take your accidentally stolen melody and play it backwards. You may need to adjust the chord progression, but that may also be a good thing; it makes it even less likely that you’ll be accused of inadvertently “borrowing” the melody.
  2. Find the phrase that is too similar, and change that one phrase. Often it’s just one part of the melody that’s too similar. You’re not likely going to accidentally copy an entire melody. So do a bit of detective work and find the line that’s too much like one you’ve heard before. Try also changing the chord at the moment of most similarity.
  3. Radically speed up or slow down your borrowed melody. Sometimes taking a borrowed melody and slowing it down — a lot — and then changing some of the chords, will put you in the clear.
  4. Change the mode from major to minor, or vice versa. If your accidentally stolen melody is in a major key, it can be a good idea to experiment with placing it a minor key. This means changing the chords, of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem, and with slight modifications of the melody, it should work.

If it’s the lyric that’s too similar, you’ll want to take time to read the lyric over and over, and identify the parts that are most similar.

Most of the time, a change of wording can help. Sometimes, though, you may find that the entire storyline of your lyric is too similar to something else, leading to lines of lyrics that are too similar. That may require you to rewrite the entire lyric in order to avoid comparison, but the time it takes to do that will be well worth the effort.

It’s most important not to get too down on yourself for writing something that sounds like you simply plagiarized someone else’s song. It’s usually completely unintentional, and it happens more often than you think.

If you’re not sure you’ve plagiarized someone else’s song, the best way forward is to play it for others, especially those in the music world who listen to lots of music. If no one hears any similarities, you’re probably fine to go ahead with it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a Melody, 2nd ed.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “How to Harmonize a Melody”. Discover the secrets to adding chords to that melody you’ve come up with. A step-by-step process, with sound samples to guide you.

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