Neil Young

Borrowing Ideas From Other Writers’ Songs

John Lennon tells the story that Yoko was playing Moonlight Sonata on the piano and he asked her to play the chords backwards. From that reversed performance he composed his song “Because”, from The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album.

I’ve listened to Moonlight Sonata many times, including listening to it backwards (on YouTube you can find many reversed recordings, no doubt inspired by Lennon’s comment on the writing of “Because”), including versions that are actually played backwards.

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Unless I’m just not hearing it, I find it difficult to hear what Lennon was referring to when he said that he based “Because” on a backwards Moonlight Sonata. To me, the sonata played normally beginning to end holds just as much relevance to “Because” as when it’s played backwards.

And that’s fine, of course. But it got me thinking that there are lots of songs that have become famous that were at least strongly inspired by other pre-existing songs, sometimes openly borrowed (“stolen?”). Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune” comes to mind.

Of course, Young’s song openly takes the melody of Jagger & Richards’ song “Lady Jane“, but for songwriters, there might be some “wiggle room”, where you can take influences from pre-existing songs to create your own song melody, where the references to the original tune are obscure enough that you can call the song your own.

How might you do this? Here are just three ideas for manipulating older song melodies, even if only to get some initial ideas that can guide you to creating a unique melody:

  1. Take a song you like and try the melody backwards. This is a simple manipulation, but one that should escape even close scrutiny. Play a well-known melody until it’s easy to play, write down the note names, and then try the melody backwards. It’s unlikely that it will all sound good, but you might find a melodic idea or two that you can base a new tune on.
  2. Change the chords of an already-existing melody. This on its own isn’t usually enough to mask the fact that you’ve borrowed the tune from someone else, but if you change the chords and combine that with changing something else, like the tempo, you’ve got a melody that’s hard to identify. It works especially well if you take a song from a different genre, as Ross & Adler did with “Hey There“, their hit song from the musical “The Pajama Game”, the melody for which borrowed somewhat from Mozart’s Sonata in C Major K545.
  3. Change tempo and something else. Changing tempo is a great tool for masking melodies, and if you combine it with something else, like, let’s say, changing the mode from major to minor, you should be able to have the original melody not come to mind at all when your fans are listening.

There are probably lots of other ways to allow the influence of other writer’s songs that I haven’t listed, but you get the idea. For most people, melodies are recognizable not just for its notes, but for a collection of characteristics.

That means you can often use even the notes of someone else’s melody, and as long as that’s all you’ve taken (i.e., you’ve changed everything else), you can get away with it.

I don’t advocate taking other people’s melodies as a normal way to write songs, but everyone gets stuck once in a while, and it’s nice to know that there are techniques that will allow you, for a song or two, to borrow someone else’s ideas to at least get you through a tough day.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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