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As the saying goes ‘immature talents borrow; mature ones steal’. When I write songs I normally start with chord changes and try to sing something over them, but this often results in uninteresting tunes which just follow the changes. I’m trying to start with a melody first and then harmonise it, but find it hard to come up with musically or emotionally interesting tunes.

Is it OK just to steal great melodies or parts and drop them into new songs? There is plenty of old material in folk, classical and liturgical music which is either out of copyright or not attributed to a composer. It seems much better to adapt something really good to my lyrics and phrasing than imagining that I’m doing something original only to be told that ‘my’ tune is already on the web somewhere.

Clarification: I'm not asking if it is legal or ethical and 'stealing' here is irony to some extent. What I'd like help with is advice on whether adapting old melodies will improve composition skills and maybe lead to something more 'original' in the long run.

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    When you ask 'ok', do you mean legally or morally?
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:20
  • @Tim the question concerns "old material in folk, classical and liturgical music which is either out of copyright or not attributed to a composer," which implies that it's about the moral aspect. Accordingly, I've voted to close it as "opinion based."
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 10 at 7:29
  • @phoog I don't think it's just or mainly about morals. I'm hoping to learn from composers if adapting old tunes can be a good stepping stone to writing good, perhaps more original material or if it might be a blind alley. There are obviously lots of songwriters who do it, but I'm not worried about their ethics. Do I need to clarify this?
    – Davy5003
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:16
  • @Davy5003 I'm afraid the answer is yes, you do; from the question it very much sounds you wanted an answer about the ethics and legality of this, not efficiency for building up skills.
    – Divizna
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:19
  • @user1079505 It should be clear from the question that this is not about law, but I've put in a clarification that it is about composition skills and practice.
    – Davy5003
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:27

6 Answers 6

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Adapting old melodies will most definitely improve compositional skills. Preexisting music that gained appreciation basically gives you insight into what makes a melody great. The whole process of making music is always referential, contextual and constantly recycled and that is what gives it the depth - we keep narrowing down on what moves us collectively.

If you find you cannot come up with something satisfying on your own try to analytically figure out what exactly you like about some existing melody for example by modifying it and checking if the "magic ingredient" is lost. The byproduct of this exercise would be some material that is your own but inspired by what you really like.

Just to give you example of this type of process for songwriting. Lets say you're intrigued by the melody in "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana. There is something haunting and harmonically ambigious about it. You can go and analyse how certain melody notes create color and tension there (there are some cool 9th intervals there etc), and then try to use these "colors" in different chord progression. What you create based on this type of recipe could be still very original and personal as you just used a harmonic/melodic device spotted somewhere else that brought about certain mood that you liked

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Depends what you mean by "steal". If you're asking whether it's acceptable to write new lyrics for an existing melody, then yes. Writing new lyrics to existing melodies is quite a common endeavour. Especially writing new lyrics to songs in a different language (that may or may not be translation of the original).

What is not okay - and you may be surprised that it's in fact illegal (your jurisdiction may vary but it isn't very likely) - is to claim it as your creation when it isn't.

So, you can use an existing melody for your song, but when attributing, you need to be truthful: Music: Traditional folk song, Lyrics: You.


Re your clarification that you're actually interested in how this works for building up your skills as a songwriter:

If you write new lyrics for an existing tune, you aren't a composer, you're a lyricist. You're using and training the skill to write lyrics. You aren't using or training the skill to compose melody. So it does help you to build up your skill as a songwriter, but not the part that you probably wanted to work on.

Getting yourself acquainted with a range of tunes is helpful for writing your own, but I doubt you gain anything more from writing your own lyrics to them than you would gain from simply playing the existing songs as they are.

For working on your composing skills, I'd suggest to do it the other way around: Take an existing poem and turn it into a song.

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  • Note that plagiarism itself, while unethical and carrying many risks, is not always illegal. I would encourage not to discuss law topics on Music SE. Also, the edited question seems to suggest OP is looking for different kind of answers. Commented Apr 10 at 8:32
  • @user1079505 I haven't had time to reply to the question raised in the comment yet.
    – Divizna
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:34
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The composers considered to be the greatest of all time did this extensively. Of course they also did come up with original melodies, but I think you’ll find if you adapt enough existing melodies it will become easier to come up with new ones.

Even 20th century composers have arranged folk songs to great effect.

I especially suggest writing themes and variations based on old melodies. And yes, limit yourself to using material from before 1910 or so to make sure you don’t have to worry about copyrights.

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  • Copyright rulings differ from country to country. But 1910 might do it.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 11 at 10:57
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What I'd like help with is advice on whether adapting old melodies will improve composition skills and maybe lead to something more 'original' in the long run.

Yes, but compositional skill is the goal, as apposed to a focus only on melody, you should not only look at melody and it depends a lot of what "adapting" involves.

One approach is to abstract a specific existing work down to a structural level and then re-work that structure into new surface level detail to produce a new work.

You can abstract various things...

  • phrase structure, ex. \\: I ... V (H.C.) :||: I ... V I (P.A.C) :||
  • harmonic progression, ex. V65/IV IV V65/V V
  • melodic outline, ex. ^4 ^3 ^2 ^1

When deciding on surface details you can choose from many palettes...

  • conjunct v. disjunct motion
  • chord tones v. non-chord tones
  • change meter
  • harmonic rhythm
  • metrical displacement of events
  • rhythmic figuration

...and many other things.

...I normally start with chord changes and try to sing something over them...

This is an example of the approach I described. If you don't like the melody that results, start digging into melody analysis. You really need to move beyond harmony textbook type analysis to do that. You need to analyze scores beyond chord progressions only. Your music theory reading should expand accordingly.

I suspect pop/jazz is your main interest, but because it's hard to find good reading material specifically on melody, you may want to expand to "classical" sources. On thing to look into is the historic melody teaching material called solfeggi, which taught melody via exemplars.

...Is it OK just to steal great melodies or parts...better to adapt something really good to my lyrics...

I assume you mean you have lyrics and then you find existing melodies that can support your lyrics. This is something different. It's either pastiche or something like vocalese. That seem more suited to a lyricist who wants to quickly flesh out some music without collaborating with a musician. That may provide placeholder type music, but I don't see that it helps much to learn composition.

...improve composition skills and maybe lead to something more 'original' in the long run.

It might be better to worry less about originality with this kind of study and instead focus on expressive outcome of each exercise. For example, take a tune like Over The Rainbow, keep the same rhythm and general melodic contour, but change the size of each melodic interval (this could involve a change of mode.) Do three such exercises, then compare the results with each other and the original melody. File it away when finished. Forget about the three exercise melodies. Remember the expressive effects achieved. Don't worry if they are original.

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  • Over the Rainbow's an interesting one. It's had so many different harmonisations so far, more to come, I expect.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 11 at 10:55
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I'd suggest you work on improving the tunes that you write.

Study tunes that you like and see if you can identify what it is about them that makes them effective.

You say you're following the changes - so if you have an arpeggio, instead of 1-3-5 you could try those same notes in a different order. Also, instead of descending by a semitone you could try ascending by a major 7th. That sort of thing - turn a small dull interval into a larger more dramatic interval.

Also investigate pedal tones - you can sing a D over a G chord and also over a C chord - the crunch is nice (to my ears anyway). Also non-chord tones - if every note of your tune is consonant to the harmonizing chord, there's less of the tension/resolution that we all enjoy in a good tune.

Your tunes may sound dull because they move stepwise all the time. If you can insert some larger intervals that will spice things up.

But don't try to pass someone else's tune off as your own.

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From my experience observing others, rearranging others' music does not improve compositional skills in the long term. For every Gooseworx, insaneintherainmusic, or RichaadEB who eventually figures out how to compose after mainly honing their skills on arrangements, there are loads of arrangers like ToxicxEternity, DjtheSdotcom, Jonny Atma of GaMetal, Sixto Sounds, and gabocarina96 who never figure it out. You mainly spend all your time arranging instead - you seemingly never apply it to composition.

Arranging mainly teaches you how to adjust instrumentation, but at teaching you the form of a full piece of music, it is mediocre at best. Arranging is also only as good at teaching trends in the music genres you want to compose in as simply listening to music in those genres is. It is for reasons like these that arranging is often an inadequate stepping stone for composing original pieces.

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  • Do you have reason to believe that the 'arrangers' you mention are interested in trying to create original compositions? It seems plausible that they have simply made a commercial decision to concentrate on a particular niche in the Youtube market.
    – avid
    Commented Apr 11 at 23:24
  • @avid - Jonny Atma's been contributing to more and more brand-new works, but I haven't been able to determine whether he made any of the compositional decisions for them (or whether they were the fault of Tee Lopes, etc.). It's often quite unpredictable when any of the arrangers I pay attention to start composing, so I have to assume they're at least minorly interested in composing. (Sixto Sounds in particular sneaked in a lot of original enough material in one of my favourite arrangements of his.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 12 at 2:30
  • @avid - Your comment reminds me of what I've read about FamilyJules, whose bio says he started off in a bunch of failed bands that he presumably might have composed or arranged material for. He's likely the only arranger I've listened to who is implied to have given up on composing.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Apr 12 at 2:32

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