Musical Influence, Plagiarism and Prolificacy

We’ve all heard music that strikes us as special. Something slightly out of the ordinary or in fact, way out of the ordinary has made most songwriters including myself say “I want to write a song like that”.

Maybe you’re saying, “Dude, I NEVER do that. I’m all about being original.” Well as hard as you try to make me believe that, you’re either naive or you’re full of crap.

To be honest, though. Nothing is that cut and dry. Granted, no one wants to be thought of as a plagiarist. To learn about music whether through studying an instrument, or merely for enjoyment, you’ve got to have heard a few songs.

OK, I hear your collective “Duh, thanks Dr. Obvious.”, but stay with me here.

Some will say that in this age of information, we’re barraged by so much input that the output is sure to be tainted. Actually “flavored” may be a better term.

Let’s take a look at a definition (which could change at some point in the future as technologies advance).


The practice of claiming or implying original authorship of (or incorporating material from) someone else’s written or creative work, in whole or in part, into one’s own without adequate acknowledgement – the issue of false attribution.

Musical influence on the other hand is as inevitable as farming. Once the seeds are planted…well you get the idea.

If not for Leopold Mozart, we’d have no Wolfgang Mozart, if not for Haydn, we’d have no Beethoven all the way to Boogie Woogie giving us Swing and Blues which begat Gospel, R & B, Rock and Roll, Heavy Metal and Hip Hop.

Don’t forget, if not for Little Richard and Elvis, we’d have no Beatles.

I’m pretty sure that somewhere along the way, Swing had a threesome with the Recording Industry and Don “No-Soul” Simmons and Disco was born. ;-)

So obviously it’s all about learning and reinventing and pardon the American Idol reference, “Making it your own”.

Where does one draw the line? Well, it’s hard to say. Sort of like little white lies I guess. We all know its wrong to do, but sometimes it’s forgivable. We just have to listen to what moves us, and see how much of us we can put into it.

For me, when I started writing I was about 15 years old. I knew if I was going to write songs, I needed to really get familiar with how a song was put together. I would take a song I liked, re-write the lyrics, then put it away for long enough for me to have forgotten what the song was that I wrote it against.

I’d also take chord progressions right out of an artist’s songbook, see how I might trim off a chord or add one, or flip a sequence around, add in another sequence from another artist and do the same. Then I’d see how I might play it with different tempos, rhythm changes, trying to make it fit the lyrics until I got something I liked.

There always was the fear that someone would say “You stole that from so and so”, but no one was going to buy those tunes so I didn’t really care much back then.

Today, I write in a similar vein. I listen to as many varied styles as I can. Now, instead of stealing chord changes, I go for the feel of the song or a similar build up rather than copying specific phrases.

What I listen for now is for suggestions in style more than anything else. A surf music sound, or a 70′s Rod Stewart style rocker, or a late 70′s New Wave type of tune. Maybe a jazz infused ballad with a hard rock bridge.

No matter what I do though, I’m always going back to listening to stuff I like, so that I can write stuff I like. Rarely do things just happen naturally for me unless, well John Lennon referred to it as “Diarrhea of Rock”.

I’d rather call it a flow of prolificacy.

That’s the word for the day. Use it three times and there’s a penny in it for ya ;-)

Meanwhile, until next time, I’ll leave you with with this cool vid I found on You Tube. Check out Theresa Andersson


9 Responses

  1. Ben Walker Says:

    I saw Randy Bachman at a songwriting workshop in London recently, and someone asked him what he thought about “stealing” bass lines, chord sequences, etc. He said, “If I hear something I like, I use it. Then I play it to my wife and kids. If they say ‘Hey, isn’t that [whatever]?’, I go back and change it a bit until they don’t recognize it any more!”

    I guess that’s the logical conclusion to the “make it your own” road. Eventually you drop the euphemism and just “steal it, as long as nobody notices”. ;o)

  2. vmcghee Says:

    Thanks, Ben.

    I have to say I love the bold and brazen approach.

    I heard once that since so many songs are plagiarized today, that even trying to win a copyright infringement suit is difficult because it’s hard to prove the “original” piece was truly original.

    I guess that’s unless you’re suing someone famous like a Beatle, in which case the fame alone from being the plaintiff is bound to increase record sales.

  3. John Bowen Says:

    I don’t believe chord progressions are subject to copyright.
    There are so many songs that share the same chord movement. I think it’s mostly melody against a chord progression that is looked at in a plagarism case.

    Think about it. Two Hits:
    “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
    by the Beatles and

    “25 Or 6 To 4″
    by Chicago.

    Could Robert Lamm, who penned “25″ be sued by George Harrison’s estate? (George’s song came first) It follows the same A minor chord progression in the verse (but different in the chorus). The melody is clearly different, though.

    These are two of several examples of chord progression similarities. John Lennon’s “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” from the White album is another example. Many hit songs of the 50′s had the very same progression. It’s a very common pop progression.

    Joe Jackson even borrowed not only a progression, but a few notes of the melody from Badfinger’s “Day After Day” in his hit from 1983, “Breaking Us In Two”. I don’t remember hearing of a lawsuit there.

    Just my two cents. Nice job on the blog, man!!

    John Bowen

  4. Victor McGhee Says:

    To be honest John, my post was less about the actual plagiarism. More about the problem that many of us have in that we don’t necessarily want to plagiarize. It’s a nasty feeling when you’ve been working on a song then you realize it sounds like something else you’d been listening to before. It’s often unintended.

    The point was more that it’s hard for a songwriter to not be influenced than it was one of copyright infringement.

    There is a very fine line at times :-)

  5. John Bowen Says:

    Oh my, Vic, do I know where you’re coming from!! When I first started writing songs (and still sometimes) I used to feel the awful cring of realizing that something I’ve really worked hard on and was proud of sounded just a bit too much like something already out there. I used to even feel guilty about using the same chord progression as another song, but after doing alot of research, my fears were absolved about chord progs. But I know it’s even a challange to get your melody unique. Thanks for bringing this topic up. Alot of us worry about that, and we try so hard to be different.

    John B.

  6. The Musical Thoughts of Ruba Saqr: Jordanian musicians will soon be able to CopyLeft their music instead of CopyRighting their creative flow... Says:

    [...] recent drop in prices down to 30% of original CD prices because of piracy (actual piracy, and not musical plagiarism). I’m not sure I know what CopyLeft’s take is on this one… where do you draw the line… or maybe [...]

  7. Frances Altman Says:

    I wonder why no one seems to be concerned about exposing lyrics when he is searching for
    a music writer. Since titles can’t be copyrighted, what protection is there?

    Would appreciate comments

  8. This Week In Songwriting (20/06/08) Says:

    [...] Musical Influence, Plagiarism and Prolificacy [...]

  9. Rohit Says:

    I’m been composing for a LONG time so I can tell you where you need to start. I know ectlaxy what your problem is and how to fix it. You need to practice remembering what chords are compatible to one another.For example a D G (Bflat) chord is compatible with a G (Bflat) D chord.Did you see how they contain the same notes but are arranged differently?Look at a d minor scale:D E F G A (Bflat) (Csharp) DAny of those keys are acceptable for a d minor song. So if you used chords that are combinations of any of those keys, you can be 90% sure to be fail safe. That’s a good place to start.Now look at an a minor scale:A B C D E F (Aflat) APlay the following chords:(A C E)((Aflat) C E)(F (A flat) C)(E A C)Those are all in the scale and you just created a tune to an a minor songRecognizing what doesn’t sound right is the beginning of learning what DOES sound right.Experiment a little and find out what works what doesn’tHope this helps

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