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Think You Stole Your Melody From Another Song? You’re Probably Right… And Wrong

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:
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Thanks to Ray Fortunato for sending me the above math, from the research of Oli Freke (great name!).

25 responses to “Think You Stole Your Melody From Another Song? You’re Probably Right… And Wrong”

  • I stole an Elvis Costello melody that I really liked, and wrote a song to it. By the time I was finished, not even Elvis Costello’s mother would have recognized the melody. I’d changed the tempo, changed the notes. What had attracted me most to the Costello song was a little rhythmically tricky thing that I hadn’t heard before, and really liked. I kept that…until I changed it too.

  • Hmmmm, ? Very interesting!
    I find the #s breakdown impressive as well as encouraging to just go ahead and create W/O fear of ripping off someone’s melody. I have more than my share of my own internal editor/fears setting up road blocks to my song writing. Glad I can let go of this one.

    I’m happy to know I’m not the only weirdo out there, since I’m always and where ever I am, humming, singing or recording snippets of melodies that reveal themselves from inside or outside my head.

  • michael paumgardhen

    I get around copy fear with awareness that one of my favourite chord progressions, the simple minor 7th to major 7th, has been used literally thousands of times, (Theme From A Summer Place, Hello It’s Me, The Game of Love) & sounds different under each melody written. This allows me some breathing room where I can find a melody groove & turn it into a chorus or series of verses easily. It took me 44 years of practice to do this.

  • I am often inspired by older songs, from the 50’s to 80’s than by today’s sounds, and every now and then I do write a song and then I go, Hey, this is sounding too much like So and So song. If its too exact, I wind up doing a cover version, but if I tweak it here and there, changing a chord here and a chord there, or even the Key and make sure I sing it differently than the song that inspired me, Voila! a totally new song emerges!
    And a good practice, at least for me, is when you write lyrics but have writer’s block as a composer is to write to an existing song (backing tracks or karaoke tracks are great for this process) and when you are done, put the song away for a couple weeks, go on to write the next and so on, and when you have a good amount of songs piled up and your musical creative juices starts flowing again, dig into those lyrics you had written and believe me, 9 out of 10 times you will forget the tracks you used to write them and you will start singing and playing your guitar or piano to a new composition that in no way resembles the song you used to write with. I personally remember using, as an example, The Phsychedelic Furs song “Pretty In Pink” as a creative board. The song that came out of that is now in no way close to it, and you won’t hear a trace of plagiarized melody upon hearing it, and I’ve done that with maybe about 15 to 20 songs, only when I have writer’s block. (I’ve been writing for almost 40 years with about 1000 songs to my name). As a writer one must continue his or her craft, don’t let writer’s block stop you. I think my method works, so long as you remember Not to remember what your inspirational tool was in reference to another song. While I may have a few songs that are easily spotted as an obviously inspired by another artist’s style (I have a few Beatlesque tunes), I also have quite a number of uniquely mine originals as well. And still go on writing songs!!
    Sorry for long comment but if it helps others, then it’s all good! :-)

  • Gavin Spencer

    2 notes, 25 combinations? Only if you limit yourself to one octave, Tony ;-)

    Gavin

  • Deb

    Really good post!

    The depressing suspicion that “what I just came up with” melodically, may just be a modified rendition of something I heard ages ago, is always at the back of my mind. Sometimes, I sit at the piano and a complete melody “comes out of nowhere”. At first I’m excited but the more I play it, the more I question it…………………..

    So, to avoid the discomfort of that possible reality, I give up and start “coming up” with something else……………

    (some days are worse than others)……………………

    Does the feeling stop me?

    Not exactly; but it certainly gets in way.

    Deb

  • John Boger

    These other comments are very old, so I don’t know if this comment will be seen, but…

    I have a short introductory song that has the melody of a song from a video game (I like the game and its music a LOT). I was just curious if the rules you listed still apply or if some things differ?

  • Sherri Boekweg

    I had this problem with the song I am currently working on. After writing the chorus another well-known song came to mind and I realized that that the first part has the same melody and rhythm as the well-known song so now I have to go back and tweak it. And it was working so well with the lyrics too. Oh well.

  • Bill

    I wrote a song and it fit the music from Lucille. If I play it in front of people, they like it, but all comment melody sounds just like Lucille. What is the best way to tweak and/or re-vamp it? Every time I try I can’t get Lucille melody out of my mind.

  • yep totally thought of that and i kept thinking im gonna get arrested for copy rights. i never made the melody yet it automaticaly plays in my head with all the instruments included. i know im kinda crazy, thats weird. but now i keep thinking i stole the melody :o :o please help

  • Richard

    This sort of reminds me of what I once read about writing fiction: If you’re having trouble thinking up a plot, just go to the plot store. The plot store is simply a book store or a library where there are novels. Take one of the plots and change some things by putting a different twist on it — i.e., maybe The Godfather as a science fiction novel — and, voila, you have a plot that will just naturally take a whole different direction once aliens, advanced technology, space travel, etc., are added to the mix. I don’t write novels, but I do write songs, and the prospect of unintentional plagiarism bothers me too. I think the only problem I see with your comments is that while it is true that the number of possible note and rhythm combinations add up very quickly — even within one octave — it’s also true that the listener’s ear expects certain patterns, so it’s kind of easy to go to patterns that someone else has used for that very same reason: the listener’s ear expects certain patterns. But your article does present a good perspective and makes me feel better about the issue.

  • Phil

    This was just what I needed to hear. Thank you so much!

  • Hougga

    I do not quite agree on the “Change a few notes and… Voila! You’ve made it your own” it sounds like an imitator who pretends to be a non-imitator and it’s not about the creation, nor even about the inspiration. is just plagiarism “disguised” to avoid being unmasked.

    I do not know how it is in other countries, but in France for example, artists were convicted for plagiarism and the judges did not rely on the accuracy of the melody, but on a PERCENTAGE (eg Chord progression similar to 80%, melody similar to 65%, Arrangement similar to 70% = Partial plagiarism), they conclude that the artist did well more than take inspiration from the song “victim”.

    If an author really feels that “your” melody has been copied to his own, he can really come to blame you if he succeeds in convincing the judge / jury that you have “made up” your “copy”, he can even trace your plagiarism process in the opposite way: by taking “your” song and modifying it a bit until it reveals its version, if these changes appear “technical” and not creative, intentional and not spontaneous, the judges and the experts will see it and you will be condemned.

    Few judges tolerate copying, especially if it is disguised as masquerading, so they make a lot of effort to understand the process of plagiarism, and they do not hesitate to appeal to impartial experts.

    There are an infinity of melodies that are only waiting to be discovered or created, I advise you to imitate just to learn.

    “Think You Stole Your Melody From Another Song?”
    It’s easy to check : Remove all the ornament And keep only the main notes (ex: a note by pulse), adapt it to the bpm, fell & time signature of the original melody, if after that it looks like the other melody, then…
    “You’re Probably Right !”

  • Hi Tony, hi John,

    Tony, what you said about changing a few notes is interesting for many reasons. Originality is perhaps in the process of the composite sound developing some new significance for the person working it over and over again. All pots have the same function but can look different with a little extra craftsmanship and a few dents or bumps added to their design when the clay is raw.

    I just got out of an ‘induction’ to a qualifying round in a talent competition. The artists get asked whether the piece being performed is their own after they have declared it is.

    :8o (Glasses dropping down one’s nose)

    My piece has been growing for years and I then bent and stuck some beads into it (using the pot metaphor) to make it appropriate to the occasion. I enjoyed it because it was already ‘mine’, though we all know that all our work comes out of a collective consciousness, really, and it’s only ours for local reasons unless the works stand the test of broader exposure.4 March 2018

    May I add (ask) a question that was also raised in that ‘induction’ nightmare about using a popular old melody (and the feeling the original lyrics evoke in a nostalgic audience) to write new lyrics for, as an expression of devotion to a spiritual master? My friend did that and referred to it as ‘my song’ in his ‘induction’ and got his knuckles rapped. This would result in a new song. Who would be the owner of that song if appropriate credit were given to the movie-maker and there were no objection to using the tune to express adoration, appreciation and love for one’s spiritual ‘protector’?

    Thanks
    Mohamed
    @kirimba

  • Blake

    I made a song a few years ago, loved it, listened to it, and decided to upload it to soundcloud. Upon doing so, I received a few comments from people that I had copied a song’s main melody.
    After listening to the song, I found that two major parts were almost exactly the same as the two major parts in my song.
    I just find it odd that I never heard of the song yet managed to almost copy it entirely. So I came to the conclusion that even if there are millions and billions of different combinations, I just had a similar perspective on how the chords would work together. Since I don’t plan on making any money on said song, and it’s just a fun thing, it doesn’t really matter to me what i copied or not.

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