It's alright to talk about what has been done in other songs, but what about creating something new? How "new" does it have to be? If there are only twelve notes, how can I do something that has never been done before? And if writing songs is like learning a language, don't I have to create my songs using elements that are somewhat familiar?
This is a topic that comes up often in writing workshops. At those times I'm fond of saying that it's not so much a question of doing and saying something that has never been done or said before as it is a matter of being "authentic" in the writing. Being original doesn't mean writing something that could only have come from another planet, but is more a matter of the writer being truly present in a creative way in the song.
You would never think of using lines you heard in a movie with with someone you have just met. You might make a joke, or speak a "line" just to be cute, but you would never insult your partner by not taking the chance of being yourself.
And yet, many of the things people say have been said before. Couples on their honeymoons must say the same things that couples have said for centuries and yet what they say is still authentic and original. I believe that imitation and originality in this context are really a matter of intent.
Plagiarism, or the stealing of someone else's work is pretty common, but should not be the concern of any serious writer. If someone borrows from you there is not much that can be done unless you can demonstrate that whole sections of the song are virtually identical.
It is surprisingly common to see ideas migrate from your best work and show up in unexpected places. The best policy in these cases is to consider it a form of flattery. Somebody thought enough of your idea to borrow it.
It may be that you will do some borrowing without being aware of it. This is also quite common but shouldn't cause you too much concern. As you become more conversant with the elements of songwriting and have more songs of your own and others in your mental reference library, there will be less need to worry about it.
The right attitude should be that as a writer you are willing to tune into your own emotional understanding and focus on the listener with confidence that if you are true to yourself, your music will be as authentic and original as it needs to be.
This doesn't mean that if you or anyone else hears something in your new song that sounds uncomfortably close to someone else's song, you don't have to do some work on it. You may wake up some night and realize that you have just re-written "Hard Days Night"
There is always time to rethink your approach as long as the promo copies of your new cd haven't gone out in the mail. All songs are still part of a great ongoing oral tradition.
You may wish to call attention to a song that has gone before. Many times this is done out of respect, or to make a comment on some part of our communal understanding that was established by an earlier song.
There are many examples of this in country music which seems to build on themes week after week with each new generation of top twenty songs. Some of these are a tip of the hat and some are an outright rip off.
"On the Other Hand", a great example of double meaning in songs, inspired, "On Second Thought", and, "I Put the Ring On the Right Left Hand", and many more. Some have more of their own thought to bring to the dialogue than others. Some are thinly disguised attempts to capitalize on the success of the earlier song.
Each of us must decide how close is too close. It's important to believe in your own voice and to say what's true. Remember, your song may be around a lot longer that any of the others and should stand on its own.
Songs achieve variation in a number of ways. There are really only twelve notes, four or five note values, and a few different rests, but by using different variations of interval, time, and harmonic combinations, there seems to be no limit to the possibilities for new songs.
How much variation, and how much repetition? Are there principles for arranging songs to make them more memorable, or more accessible?
"A good style in literature, if closely examined, will be seen to consist in a constant succession of tiny surprises." - Ford Maddox Ford
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