If you like starting your songwriting process with chords, you’re usually OK to take pretty much any chord progression you hear in anyone else’s song. That’s because chord progressions, on their own, are not protected by copyright.
But having said that, there’s a caution here that you should consider when you do, in fact, use someone else’s chord progression: be sure it’s just the chords you’re borrowing, and not other song elements.
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Here’s more about what I mean: When we hear a chord progression from another song, it’s hard for us to consider that progression as a separate entity without considering the way it’s played, the rhythmic pattern that’s used, and perhaps even the voicing of those chords.
And once you start borrowing those elements and adding them to the chords you’ve just borrowed, you’re starting to cross the line, moving into the territory of copyright infringement.
One of the lessons we learned from the “Blurred Lines” court case in 2018 — where the writers of that song (Robin Thicke and Pharrell) were required to compensate the estate of Marvin Gaye because their song sounded too similar to Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” — is that infringement is a nebulous concept: if a song sounds similar to another copyrighted song, even without copying the actual notes or lyrics, it runs the risk of infringement.
So yes, you are very welcome to take chord progressions that you hear in other songs, as long as you don’t also borrow elements that, when combined, remind listeners of the first song. So any of the following elements that you also borrow, especially in combination, might cause problems:
- the feel (including genre);
- the instrumentation;
- the tempo;
- the backing rhythm;
- any other song component.
Just to be clear, you’re completely fine to copy the feel of another song, and that’s how we get genre. And no one has a claim to any one possible tempo. But once you’ve borrowed a song’s chords, and then start adding other elements, you’re playing with fire.
The best advice for using a different song’s chords is to take the progression, write it out, and put it away for a few days. Then take it out, and while trying to ignore where the chords came from, try writing a completely new song that bears little if any resemblance to the original song.
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