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This may sound like quite an obvious question. Admittedly my knowledge of music theory is limited.

I'm essentially wondering if two songs can use the exact same notes while still having original melodies. For instance, the same six notes played in the same order but with different arrangement/rhythm.

If the pieces sound different, does it matter whether they share the same exact sequence of notes?

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6 Answers 6

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As has been described, it's not especially difficult to recompose a melody to make it unrecognizable as having been copied from some other song. I did this for the question How to write music if you already know music theory. And you'll see it pointed out in the comments that "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "What a Wonderful World" have near identical melodies at their beginnings. (I've intentionally "flattened" the rhythm of "Wonderful World" to make the correspondence as clear as possible.)

Score: Twinkle vs. Wonderful World

In fact, for people without musical training, it's often the case that keeping a melody exactly the same but changing the lyrics can make someone not realize they're hearing the same music twice.

For example, people are often surprised to discover that "Twinkle", "Baa, Baa Black Sheep", and the "ABC" song all share the same melody. Another example is the song "Imagine" by John Lennon. The first four lines of the song all share exactly the same three notes. But when I've helped people learn the song by ear, they're often surprised to discover how simple and repetitive the song actually is. (Learning pop music by ear is often quite disappointing for newcomers, because music they heard as intricate and complex turns out to be just two or three notes repeated. In the linked recording listen to

Imagine there's no heaven.
It's easy if you try:
no hell below us,
above us only sky.

The three notes are G, B, and A.

As to the question of "Does it matter", from a legal perspective, we can't answer here, but as a matter of some sort of musical ethics, it's no problem. It's been happening for hundreds of years. As long as the "duplicate" composition sounds truly unique, then it's fine.

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  • Thanks for the reply, this was very helpful and much appreciated.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:49
  • Reminds me of the song "Magic Changes" from Grease, which points out that many rock songs are all composed of the same 4 chords. And also of the general concept of "theme and variation".
    – Barmar
    Nov 3, 2023 at 14:48
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True, there are quite a few songs which contain matching melody notes. It can get close to plagiarism, as several famous songs bear testament to.

Two big differences could be apparent, though. The rhythm of those notes, especially where the emphases come - which notes are on the accented parts of bars, as well as the more obvious length of each note.

The other factor here is the underlying harmony. There could be (and are!) two melodies that are identical, but with totally different harmonies attached. That will make them sound like different songs. Not as much, admittedly, as the other way round - keep the harmony and change the melody - which happens all the time in jazz.

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  • Thank you for the reply. I assume, therefore, that the same notes played with a different rhythm could constitute two independent and unique melodies? As opposed to merely remoulding an existing one. I'm thinking along the lines of the same notes being used coincidentally by two composers while the nonetheless resulting in distinctive tunes.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:56
  • @Ben - absolutely. From time to time, I'll play a well known tune for a student, in rather different timing. To note the importance of said timing. Rarely is their recognition correct. So it works! With only a handful of notes to play with, the rhythm they're played in becomes even more important.
    – Tim
    Nov 2, 2023 at 15:46
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Another way to "disguise" the same melody is through the use of tempo and rhythm. Many people know the songs 76 Trombones and Goodnight My Someone from The Music Man, but never realized that they are essentially the same melody at different tempos and rhythms (3/4 Moderato vs. 6/8 March). Kudos to Meredith Willson!

Goodnight My Someone

Goodnight My Someone

76 Trombones

76 Trombones


Stravinsky's Greeting Prelude is a cleverly disguised version of a very familiar tune.


Another concept of melodic "sameness" occurs in sets of variations on a theme. These can range from a set where the melody is always exactly the same (e.g. Chopsticks where the primo part is always identical but the secondo, accompaniment part changes) to variations where great liberties are taken with the melody to the point where it can become almost unrecognizable.

A fun example of arrangements of the exact same melody is the Paraphrases on Chopsticks (actually the "Cutlet Polka," a variant) by Liszt, Cui, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Liadov and others.


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    Thanks for the response and the good example - it's very interesting to see. Would both songs be considered to have the same melody then? Or would these changes - greater distance between the notes etc - constitute two separate ones? Apologies for the lack of correct terminology, as mentioned my knowledge of music theory is limited and I'm trying to educate myself more.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 17:30
  • @Ben 76 Trombones has some added/interpolated notes, which is why I said I essentially the same starting melody. Arrangements/interpretations of the same song/melody can have actual differences, though. Others will probably comment on what constitutes the "same" melody. I've added examples to my answer.
    – DjinTonic
    Nov 4, 2023 at 8:21
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Easily. The rhythm matters. I think the Marine's Hymn and the Blue Danube Waltz start with notes 1,3,5 outlining a tonic chord. Lots of pieces start with an arpeggio of some chord.

These are not complete pieces, just segments. Some segments can be quite long.

Two pieces can use all the notes of either a diatonic or chromatic scale in different orders. (I'm not sure this is what is being asked about.)

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  • But changing the rhythm doesn't necessarily change the identity of the melody. For example, in the fourth movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, the main theme, which first appears in even quarter notes, subsequently appears in both dotted and long-short triple meter, and the seid umschlungen theme, initially in a slow 3/2, alternating long and short, later appears in a fast 6/4 in even dotted half notes/minims. Another example is Joe Crocker's rendition of "With a Little Help from my Friends" in triple meter. I agree that the opening of the Marine Hymn doesn't evoke the opening of ...
    – phoog
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:16
  • ...the Blue Danube, so there's definitely something to this, but it must be more complicated. With this example, tempo is likely another factor, but I think the main factor is probably the shortness of the identical segment. This leads to the statement "some segments can be quite long": how long can they be? Another factor is probably also the degree of change to the rhythm and whether the accents are shifted relative to the meter, etc., but still it seems that the brain's capacity to recognize melodies can overcome such changes.
    – phoog
    Nov 2, 2023 at 8:32
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    Thanks for the response, it was very useful. The question concerned segments more so than the use of notes in a scale. I was mainly interested in knowing whether it was possible for longer segments - six notes or so - to use the same notes in order but ultimately sound different/unique.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:51
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Building on some other answers already here, film music is the master of taking a tune and playing it in completely different ways for different parts of the film, allowing a motif to represent a person/thing/idea and then playing it with different emotions or styles are wanted by the film (aside, this method of composition is itself rooted in ideas and techniques that almost all classical composers of the past used).

A good example would be the Jedi theme from Star Wars that was used by John Williams variously for victories, funerals, subtle hints about characters, heroic actions and many other areas.

Compare the twin sunset theme (Episode IV):

and Qui Gon and Obi Wan lightsabering through a blast door on the enemy ship (Episode I) (at 1:02):

More subtle is the comparison between the sunset theme and Darth Vader's funeral (Episode VI), where the arrangement is very similar, but the performance is different giving a different emotion:

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Rearrangement of a song means typically changing the instrumentation and/or changing the accompaniment, but normally without changing the melody. So even if the song changes character a bit, it's the same song, with the same harmony.

One of rearrangement techniques is reharmonization, when you change, sometimes quite substantially, the chords. An example could be this version of Lady Gaga's "Let's Dance" played by Dirty Loops:

It sounds quite different, but the melody feels mostly the same. In this version, even though chords are changed, the key or tonal center relative to the melody is the same as the original.

However, one can go further, and change the key, i.e. play the same notes against a different tonal center. This might be difficult for a whole melody, as good melodies often suggest a specific keys, but may work for some shorter phrases or motifs.

Then, even if you don't change the rhythm, you can place the same notes at the different part of a measure, so that some stressed notes become unstressed, some unstressed become stressed, or syncopated and non-syncopated notes switch their roles. This may change the feel of a melody by a lot.

I can't think of any examples of these two possible transformations right now, possibly because when they happen I don't recognize similarity to another melody.

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    Sorry, that's my mistake with the misuse of terminology. Essentially my question was to do with whether two melodies can use the same exact notes but still sound unique and different. Not just taking the same melody but having two distinct melodies composed of the same sequence of notes - provided it's possible to achieve etc. But either way, thank you for the response - it was much appreciated.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 13:53
  • @Ben Yeah, I think it's covered well by the other answers. I wanted to explore a bit how much exactly the same melody can sound different even if you don't change the rhythmic values. Nov 2, 2023 at 14:52

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