If you’re a songwriter, you probably have experienced this fear at least occasionally: the thought that something you’ve just written has already been written by someone else, and you’ve unintentionally copied it and called it your own.
At the least, it’s embarrassing, and at most, it could be a legal liability. The good news is that most of the time cases of accidental plagiarism will be noticed by someone in the industry before your great new song is performed and/or recorded, and you’ll be spared the complexities of dealing with it in the courts.
There is one good thing you can do that will lessen the chances that you’ll unintentionally copy another song, and it’s this: listen to as much music as you possibly can, from as many different genres as you can.
In the world of the creative arts, nothing is truly unique: you don’t exist in an artistic vacuum. Every song you write can be traced back to someone else’s song, even just as a casual influence.
Even if all you’re being influenced by is other songs’ “feel” — their instrumentation, their performance style, or the way you sing — everything you write is the product of every song your brain has encountered in the past.
It’s great to be influenced by other songs, as long as you don’t cross the line into actually borrowing melodies or lyrics. It means that since every songwriter has their own past experience that guides their writing, every new song you write will be unique.
These days, we’re in a complicated legal world where judges and lawyers are trying to figure out where to draw the line between songs that share a genre, and songs that share specifice ideas. Ed Sheeran is currently embroiled in a court case where he copied the style (not the melody or lyrics) of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” when he wrote “Thinking Out Loud.”
Not to go off-topic, but this case should be tossed. In short, we need courts to understand the difference between the requirements of a genre as a separate issue from actual melodies and lyrics.
In any case, you’re going to find yourself in much safer territory if your own songs are infused with the past ideas and structures of as many different songs and genres as possible. The more you listen, the more this is likely to be the case.
If you consider yourself a “serious” songwriter, you should think of daily listening as important a thing as daily writing. The more you listen, the larger the pool of ideas you can draw from, and the less likely it becomes that you’ll borrow ideas that can be traced back to any one song.
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