Songwriting: Avoiding Unwitting Plagiarism

Bob Leggitt | Wednesday, 30 December 2015 |

Have you ever experienced a situation in which you’ve had a “flash of inspiration”, envisioned an almost complete musical idea out of nowhere, and developed the idea into a song?… Only to find at a later date (perhaps years down the line), that your “brilliant gift from the Gods” was in fact an existing piece of music, which you’d simply, unwittingly, copied? It’s something to which a lot of less experienced songwriters can fall prey. And if you haven’t yet encountered it, all I can advise is: be very afraid!…

As a youngster I came up with a chorus melody I thought was amazing. At least, I believed I’d come up with it. A good decade or so after incorporating the melody into my own song, I was re-acquainted with an old movie I’d seen at the age of 4 or 5. And there was my chorus. Exactly, note for note, four bars. I’d directly copied a tune from an old movie, but I hadn’t a clue I’d done it. I genuinely thought it was my idea. Fortunately, I didn’t get as far as releasing the track.


Psychologists have shown how unaware we can be of our huge susceptibility to subconscious influence. Derren Brown has demonstrated, with great entertainment value, that it’s possible to predict the ideas people will have, by surreptitiously showing them specific visual stimuli before they’re asked to exercise apparent 'free choice'. The remarkable, if slightly scary trend is that if these experiments are conducted in a certain way, people don’t realise that their thoughts have been directed. They think their ideas are coming to them completely spontaneously, from within. What they’re really doing, is rehashing information that’s recently dropped into their subconscious.

We see constant evidence of this online too. An influencer makes a comment, and a short time later, people start repeating the same nugget of wisdom back to her/him. It’s common on social media, on forums, and in blog comment threads. You can tell by the panache and relish with which people repeat an influencer’s line, that they think it’s their own wisdom. Sometimes it’s almost a verbatim repetition, but they’re not deliberately plagiarising. If they were, the last place they’d be sending their rip-off is back to its creator.

The implications of this trait for the musician are dire, unless we take it in hand and manage it. Therefore, controversial as this may sound, it’s probably better to deliberately take a melody from an existing song and change it until it’s no longer recognisable, and then reset the context and chords, etc, than to use seemingly original complex melodies that appear to “come from within”.

We have to accept that EVERYTHING comes from somewhere, and the real source is NEVER “from within”. We have to reality check anything that seems too easy. A tune that appears in mind ready-made will have originated in the real world. It may have drifted away from its roots in various respects, but equally, it may not have. Whatever the level of 'subconscious recycling', until you've identified the source, this is high risk material. There is no divine being passing you this stuff as a special favour. If you want to create something, you have to do it from scratch, note by note. In short, what a ready-made “piece of inspiration” really is, is someone else’s tune. You heard it, assimilated it, consciously forgot it, and then the tune passed back from your subconscious into your conscious. The attribution didn’t come with it, but that doesn’t mean it’s yours.

What makes these these bolts out of the blue so dangerous, is the unknown. You don’t know what you’re dealing with. You probably don’t have any reference on the original context – the beat, chords, etc. And you probably don’t know how much your subconscious has distorted or rationalised the melody. Is it any different at all from the original? If so, how different? Different enough to avoid a plagiarism lawsuit? Unless you can place the original tune and compare the two, you don’t know.

You may be lucky. You may have something that your subconscious has recycled just enough that, when set into a context sufficiently different from the original, doesn’t sound like a copy. But if you’re not lucky, the consenquences don’t bear thinking about. If you produce a piece of music that is blatantly the same as something else, no one is going to believe that you didn’t simply sit down and rip off the original.


But as I mentioned, songwriters can work around this critical danger by setting the process into a controlled environment. That is, start with a consciously recognised piece of music that's in keeping with your tastes and enthusiasm. Then calculatedly change that piece of music in a progressive manner, until it ceases to be recognisable as a copy.

The difference, when you do this, is that you do know what you’re dealing with. Your source is a known quantity, and you always have it for comparison. You can therefore control the process. Make the music yours. Ensure that it’s not a direct copy of the original. Obviously, you have the ultimate responsibility for rendering the music beyond identification, so if people do start to recognise its origins, you only have yourself to blame.

But provided you manage to avoid leaving evidence of the track's origins, then ironically, you're almost certainly safer from plagiarism claims with this type of calculated lift and reconstitution, than you would be when you truly believe you've spontaneously envisioned a complete, complex idea.

Alternatively, of course, you can compose note by note. But the world only hears your final result, and no one needs to know how you developed it. As long as what you end up with is not considered a copy of an existing work, your method is immaterial.

But ignore at your peril your innate propensity to blindly and unwittingly copy. The human imagination is good, but it's not so good that it can generate a hit tune, in one piece, without even trying. Having a complex musical idea without doing any work is like winning a competition you didn't enter. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

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