Peter Gabriel in Concert

Imitation Isn’t Just Flattery — It’s an Important Songwriting Tool

All songwriters have an instinct for being unique. Why would you purposely try to write a song that sounds like someone else wrote it?

You wouldn’t normally do that, except… imitation can be a powerful songwriting tool, particularly for learning and developing good technique. And the good thing is that if you purposely try to copy someone else’s songwriting style, there’s usually enough of you in there that it won’t rise to the level of plagiarism.

The Power of Emulation

For any skill you can name, emulating better, more experienced people is an important part of learning. Young soccer players imagine they are Maradona, and they study his every move, every nuance of his playing style, and they imagine eventually having the fame and fortune that goes along with being that good.

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Studying Maradona’s playing isn’t just living a fantasy, though. By studying him and trying to copy what he did on the field, young athletes don’t just feel inspiration; they are being instructed in a very important way: by seeing his technique in context, out on the soccer pitch. That in-context example is something that can’t be demonstrated or learned in any other way.

Imitating Good Songwriters

It’s not much different for songwriters, except that there’s always that natural need and desire to be unique. In that sense, imitation is a tricky tightrope to walk. You want to be unique, but there is so much to learn from great songwriters of the past.

My advice to young songwriters is to listen to as much good music as you can, and then, from time to time, purposely try to sound like one of more-seasoned songwriters. If you’ve always loved Peter Gabriel’s songs, for example, listen closely to various individual aspects of his songs:

  1. Melodic ideas. Is there something in common between all of his songs, something that makes a Gabriel song sound like it could only have been written by him?
  2. Lyrics. What are the kinds of things he has favoured as songwriting topics, and then what are the kinds of words and phrases he might typically use in his lyrics?
  3. Chord choices. Beyond the standard I-IV-V kinds of progressions, what else might he select as chord choices that make his songs stand out?

As you start to get a handle on what makes Peter Gabriel’s songs sound like his, the next step is to try it yourself. Try to put it all together and write a song that sounds like you just uncovered a new, never-before-heard Peter Gabriel song.

Writing to purposely imitate someone else means that you’ve assimilated aspects of that other writer’s style and technique: you’ve learned by first listening, and then imitating.

If this sounds like “cheating”, where you’re trying to find a shortcut to songwriting success, be aware that all good songwriters have done this. Nothing in songwriting happens in a vacuum. All of the good ones have spent time early in their careers copying the best parts of some other songwriter that’s come before.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter

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