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How do you know your compositions are really "original"?


Steve in VA

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Just about every time I sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar, I come up with some musical idea, but am always struck by a nagging feeling that what I'm playing might not be truly "original". Perhaps I'm merely picking out some tune I heard long ago?

 

I saw an interesting documentary about Colin Hay of the Men at Work where it mentioned the plagiarism lawsuit alleging that the iconic flute riff in "Down Under" was ripped off from a decades-old nursery rhyme.

 

Do any of you ever struggle with this?

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Yep. Back in 1999 when everybody was talking about Y2K and the end of the world, I wrote a song basically on that topic. I never did anything with it, just for my own enjoyment. A couple years later I realized it was a direct ripoff of Electric Funeral by Black Sabbath. I suppose that song was drilled into my head with regards to Apocalypse so that when I wrote about it myself, that's what came out. I mean it wasn't exactly the same, but the basic melody of the verses came out in a synth riff running through distortion.

Dan

 

Acoustic/Electric stringed instruments ranging from 4 to 230 strings, hammered, picked, fingered, slapped, and plucked. Analog and Digital Electronic instruments, reeds, and throat/mouth.

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Just about every time I sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar, I come up with some musical idea, but am always struck by a nagging feeling that what I'm playing might not be truly "original". Perhaps I'm merely picking out some tune I heard long ago?

 

I saw an interesting documentary about Colin Hay of the Men at Work where it mentioned the plagiarism lawsuit alleging that the iconic flute riff in "Down Under" was ripped off from a decades-old nursery rhyme.

 

Do any of you ever struggle with this?

 

No. I would not 'struggle ' or obsess. IMO.

 

I have 'absorbed ' over 6 decades of music. Our brains and recall can be

remarkable and unpredictable. You are likely, to re-produce something

you heard in the past but your result will be personalized and different

from the 'original'.

 

If you are a creative song writer and consistent about it, plus getting it out there, promoting it , you will get in touch with the entire process.

Why fit in, when you were born to stand out ?

My Soundcloud with many originals:

[70's Songwriter]

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Yeah, I have thought about that from time to time. And came to the conclusions above, that probably there isn't much original to be had :) Best you can do is try your best not to obviously copy something.

 

There are chord progressions I try to avoid though. Chief among them is the "used in every freaking pop song recently" one: I > V > vi > IV (or variations). Let it be being an older example. It's everywhere and it's almost impossible to make a bad melody over it, which of course is why it's used :D If I catch myself using it--it's like a black hole leading you from chord to chord--I have to break out of it by throwing an oddball chord in there!

 

Another one I tend to abuse in electronic music is (e.g. in C): C Bb Ab, or C Ab and back...so easy to use it constantly for instrumental stuff.

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Thank you, Steve In VA, I also struggle with the same issue. In fact, here's what recently happened to me, that really set me back on the subject:

 

A buddy and I recently came up with a series of 4 changes that I feel are "nothing short of epic" - I mean, I still love the changes, and feel they are completely original and unique! When we played them for a drummer that I very highly respect, his comment was: "That can't be original, it sounds like a rip-off". We responded to him that it was indeed original, to which he responded, "no, that can't be original, it seems so familiar".

 

The point is: The drummer cannot identify any song or previous source of those chords / that sound.... yet they immediately sounded so good and so "right" to him, that he firmly assumes that it MUST have been previously written by other (more professional? / better?) musicians! Sooooo... even when one writes something "original", there will always be someone out there to tear it down and cite that it's not! Heck, in reality, there probably are no 4 chords that have never ever been used in another song, somewhere, throughout time. But there's SO much more to music, even the inflection, certainly the timing / accents, even how it precedes or follows the other music around it.... all can effect the way the music is interpreted. Accordingly, I think the OP's question is a very legitimate one.

 

BTW - there are several lawsuits on this subject with which I strongly DISagree. Judges are not musicians, and, IMO, in their simple understanding of music, may have arrived at wrong copyright infringement judgements. A couple cases in point: George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" vs "He's So Fine" and the "Blurred Lines" vs" Got To Give It Up" cases.

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As we've discussed here before, I've always loved this clip of Alicia Keys. She describes how she came to write "Girl on Fire", and talks about how she "composed" the chord progression.

She "mistakenly" throws in a #4 chord between the 4 and 5 and coyly says "No, that's not it...!" before going to the 5. She does it again later, but I suspect it's because she's trying to disguise the fact that she stole the chords from "Heart and Soul" for her masterpiece. (I - vi - IV - V)

Hey, if you can do it and make money....?

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I always send new stuff to a friend who's well-connected and who I mention here now and then but won't in this context as I would consider it an invasion of his privacy.

 

If he tells me it's mine, and not something I pulled from my subconscious that someone else wrote, I feel confident of going forward.

 

He works with many of the top-name talents so I'm pretty sure he'd catch it if it's not original. But at my age, I don't expect to "get big" anyway, so I doubt I'd be lawsuit bait. :-)

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I also write almost exclusively in my head, as I feel that sitting at an instrument is more likely to produce derivative or carbon copied work. But it's fun to do so I allow it now and then, but save as a snippet to use when I'm stuck for an intro or a bridge vs. as the basis of a song's entirety.

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I accidentally read that as "a peanut butter and tuba sandwich", and was thinking how much I don't want to be the one to de-gum the works after that one is made.

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Select Strat, 70th Anniversary Esquire, LP 57, Eastman T486, T64, Ibanez PM2, Hammond XK4, Moog Voyager

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...

She "mistakenly" throws in a #4 chord between the 4 and 5 and coyly says "No, that's not it...!" before going to the 5. She does it again later, but I suspect it's because she's trying to disguise the fact that she stole the chords from "Heart and Soul" for her masterpiece. (I - vi - IV - V)

Hey, if you can do it and make money....?

 

 

Except no one actually owns or can copyright a chord progression for a good reason. Do you realize how many Baroque and Classical pieces use that same chord progression?

 

If anything, taking a chord progression from a familiar song just makes it harder to come up with a "new" song. You already have a melody associated with that chord progression, and now you're fighting to undo that melody and come up with a new one ...just so you change it beyond recognition. That's the worst thing ever for someone who wants to be original!

 

Anybody can play any chord or chord progression. That's too easy. It's what you can do with them that matters.

 

 

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Nothing any of us writes on a piano is purely original, sorry.

This, for better *and* worse. Ravel is alleged to have said "My ability to plagiarize is limited only by my faulty memory." I like brief nods to classic songs or artists, but you should know where to draw the line, especially with the copyright police always at a fever pitch. One thing I appreciate is having a small handful of astute friends who never pretend a dead fish doesn't stink. Running your musical doubts through 4 or 5 other people's filters often makes for useful clarity. They sometimes point out clam-ish things I miss, but I have a good track record overall. I've learned how to inspect a piece down to the molecular level, but not the atomic one. Don't buff things until you ruin the finish. Just avoid doing a klezmer cover of "Whip It" and claiming it as your own.

 

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It's not just the chord progression - you've got melody/harmony/rhythm/tempo...

The same 4 chords can be a basis of hundreds of possibilities - and then change 1 chord - viola! Now hundreds more can be had.

As long as you don't purposely steal more than 7 measures of a melody, you're good. Don't worry about it.

Professional musician = great source of poverty.

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Yup. In college I wrote a jazz tune. Recorded it a few years later for my first album. A few years after that I was going through some old sheet music and found an Oscar Peterson book  one of the first jazz books I had. Went through it, discovered the tune I had inadvertently ripped off for the aforementioned tune. I think I had played through that Oscar tune maybe once or twice, and didn't really even care for it. That'll learn me.
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I've got some quirky stuff that I guarantee is original, but I've got other things that I worry about, same as you.

 

There are a few other things where I knowingly started with someone's riff, then changed it. Now...did I end up subconsciously changing it into someone else's riff? That's the question.

 

Grey

I'm not interested in someone's ability to program. I'm interested in their ability to compose and play.

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I've wrestled with this for years. I wrote a jazz tune that a friend who's better versed in the genre immediately identified as a known song. I also discovered not too long ago when going through an old lyric book that I stole a Bob Dylan melody, when his melodies were more discernible. And I haven't listened to Dylan since I was very young. My solution is to write electronic/spoken word/found sound pieces, or one chord jams or just flat out novelty songs. If I tried to write a pop song I'd most assuredly steal something.

 

 

 

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It's not just the chord progression - you've got melody/harmony/rhythm/tempo...

The same 4 chords can be a basis of hundreds of possibilities - and then change 1 chord - viola! Now hundreds more can be had.

As long as you don't purposely steal more than 7 measures of a melody, you're good. Don't worry about it.

 

Yeah, but that's not what I meant. What I was trying to say was that taking a chord progression that is associated with any popular song can not be used as basis for copyright violations. All or most of these chord progressions were used in a different context long before there was a thing called pop/rock music. All modulation techniques, cadences...etc...were already explored hundreds of years ago.

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"How do you know your compositions are really 'original'"?

 

For all practical purposes, they rarely are. Someone somewhere has likely used a particular chord sequence or melodic line.

 

A local professional musician once remarked the most original popular song he had ever heard was Jesse Harris' "Don't Know Why" popularly covered by Norah Jones. Said he was pretty sure no one had used that before. It sounds great but is pretty odd.

 

[bbmaj7 Bb7] [Ebmaj7 D7+] [Gm7 C7] [F7sus (Bb)]

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Because they're far too arcane to make the leap to elevator music versions. Its music from the other side of the fence. Opaque melodies that would bug most people. If you try to whistle them, your lips hurt. There will never be a show called "A Harry Partch Christmas."

Lab Mode splits between contemplative work and furious experiments.
Both of which require you to stay the hell away from everyone else.
This is a feature, not a bug.
Kraftwerk’s studio lab, Kling Klang,
 didn’t even have a working phone in it.
       ~ Warren Ellis

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A local professional musician once remarked the most original popular song he had ever heard was Jesse Harris' "Don't Know Why" popularly covered by Norah Jones. Said he was pretty sure no one had used that before. It sounds great but is pretty odd.

 

[bbmaj7 Bb7] [Ebmaj7 D7+] [Gm7 C7] [F7sus (Bb)]

 

The funny part about that is for years, we in NY knew that song as, "Charlie Brown Christmas Believes in Yesterday."

 

Sing it and see.

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