This morning I retweeted a great article by producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski, “It’s Getting Harder And Harder To Write A Song Without Committing Plagiarism.” The article makes the point that because the judicial system now considers similarity of the basic feel of a song to be considered in a plagiarism case, along with melody and lyrics, it’s becoming practically impossible to write anything that’s truly original anymore.
In the past, music notation would illuminate any cases of plagiarism as it pertained to the actual musical content of a song. Chords were never usually considered to be protectable by copyright, so comparison of the music notation of two melodies would tell a judge and jury if plagiarism had occurred.
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That’s why George Harrison was nailed for plagiarism when he wrote “My Sweet Lord.” There was a vague similarity of feel between his song and The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (Ronald Mack), but the problem was that the way you’d notate the melody and rhythm for “My Sweet Lord” meant using the same notes (transposed) and rhythms as “He’s So Fine.”
But ever since the “Blurred Lines” case, where it was determined that that song “sounded” too much like Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”, it required all composers of music, regardless of genre, to consider the general feel of a song as an element that is protected by copyright.
[As an aside, I sometimes wonder if that judgment was in error. I think there needs to consideration for basic feel of music as something so tied to genre that no one band/producer should be able to lay claim to it. “Got to Give It Up” used certain production elements because that’s what the genre demanded. I still think about that case..]
As Bobby Owsinski’s post describes, the situation today puts musical notation in a new kind of light. When it comes to pop genres, musical notation only tells you where on your instrument to place your fingers. Now, there’s a whole new world of “feel” that can’t be defined or specified by the notation that needs to be considered.
Classical Music and Feel
In the classical music world, musical notation is much more useful and exacting. That’s because while a jazz combo might use notation as a starting point, it requires the players to understand something about the feel of jazz, and then apply that feel to their performance. The notation on its own won’t do it for you.
But in the Classical music world, every note of a symphony is specified; the players can be somewhat unaware of issues of feel. Classical music certainly does have a feel, and you will perceive the feel if all the players do their job and play the specified note when the notation tells them to.
Whatever the players add to the music (playing “warmly” in Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze“, or with more aggression in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5) is just part of being a good musician. In Classical music, the tune, the chords, the backing instrumentation and rhythmic requirements are all specified, note-for-note.
But for today’s songwriters, we’re now in an age where musical elements not specified by notation (or by combinations of words, in the case of copyright-protected lyrics) can be protected.
So what can a songwriter do today that ensures they won’t be writing something that’s already been written by someone else? Now that the basic feel of a song has been thrown into the mix, your bid to write truly original music will be helped by listening to lots of music from lots of genres.
By including many genres in your daily listening, you’ll be increasing your chances of writing music that borrows from many different genres, making it less likely you’ll be locked into any one genre’s feel.
You can still write country (or pop, or metal, or ska, or…) if that’s the sound you like, but the ideas you come up with will be informed by the inclusion of ideas from many different styles.
So not only do you have a better chance of avoiding plagiarism, but you’ll be increasing your pool of ideas and writing something more likely to be unique and innovative.
And probably the other bit of advice I’d offer is: write honestly and stop worrying about plagiarism. “Honestly” simply means to do what you’ve always done: generate musical ideas from your own imagination, develop those ideas, and don’t overly worry if your inner critic is making you wonder if you’ve heard this all before.
Occasionally, plagiarism will happen, when you write something that does bear too much similarity to something else out there. But in most cases, the fix (altering the melody, changing the feel, choosing different words for your lyrics) are pretty easy to do, as long as you recognize the similarities before your audience does.
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