One of the most common things I hear from songwriters is that they’re afraid that they subconsciously stole their melody from another song… and that therefore their melody is not really ‘theirs’.
For a song to be actual plagiarism, a substantial portion of its melody has to be exactly the same as the other song’s. As we’ll see, this is actually hard (though not impossible) to do.
Many songs – if not most – have melodies subconsciously taken from or ‘inspired by’ other songs; that’s just how our imaginations work. So why doesn’t this result in many songs with exactly the same melody?
Well, for one thing…
* If you make a melody within one octave that’s 2 notes long, there are 25 different possible variations.
* If you make a melody within one octave that’s 4 notes long, there are 7,825 different possible variations.
Most melodies are longer than 4 notes. So…
* If you make a melody within one octave that’s 6 notes long, there are app. 1.84 million different possible variations.
* If you make a melody within one octave that’s 9 notes long, there are app. 5.4 billion different possible variations.
Get the picture? Once you start stringing more than a few notes together, the possible variations quickly become practically infinite… making it very unlikely that your melody is exactly the same as another. (I’m not talking about the issue of originality – that’s another story.) This does not even take into account the rhythms of the notes – which would have to add another few billion possibilities.
Even if you try to remember a melody and copy it exactly… the odds are you’ll screw up a note or two and end up with something different!
This is literally why, if I hear something I like in a song on TV or in a movie, in a deli or a store, and I’m inspired by it, I’ll rush to my guitar or a recording device and copy what I’ve heard, the way I remember it… safe in the knowledge, borne of personal experience, that my brain has already changed it into something else. When I go back to the original source, it’s always different from what I wrote; many times so different that I can’t even recognize any similarity.
Yes, I know I’m weird but… I think most people are way more like me than like someone who, computer-like, can remember exactly what they heard five years, five days, five minutes (or five seconds) ago and reproduce it. Now that I trust my brain, bad memory included, to mess up my attempts at ‘copying’… I feel much freer to copy or, if you’d like, be inspired – which really helps my creative flow.
I believe that it’s a better approach to write, say, twenty songs without copy-fear and maybe have to throw one out because it’s too similar to something else, than to write only five of those twenty because I’m afraid that the other fifteen are too much like something else.
Does copy-fear affect you? Does it sometimes stop you? How do you get around it?
Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below:
Thanks to Ray Fortunato for sending me the above math, from the research of Oli Freke (great name!).