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About six months into learning guitar, I tried my hand at composing a song. Looked into some basic composing theory, picked a specific tempo, learned how to record and actually play the thing, and then two months later I "finished" the song, complete with lyrics and some non-standard flourishes. At the time I figured I was just putting some beginner chords together and testing out some basic theory.

Then, after I played it for a couple people, they rightly remarked that it sounds exactly like the rhythm progression for Mary Jane's Last Dance with different lyrics. And when I listened to the two back-to-back, they were entirely right. This worries me for a couple reasons.

Firstly, while Tom Petty never consciously entered my mind while I was composing, I'm a big fan of his and I'm familiar with MJLD. I never intended to plagiarize the song but I can't say I've never heard it, and it worries me that at any time I can accidentally tread on somebody else's work.

Secondly, supposing I had released my composition without noticing how similar it was and somebody wanted to take legal action against me for plagiarism, I don't know how I would defend myself. I can explain my way through the song and try to justify my choices of chords and tone but there's no way I can tell them why I just chose an amp setting that "sounded good."

Finally, work on the song has basically halted because running every flourish and idea through the lens of "is this REALLY my idea?" has thrown a kink in what's passing as my inventive process. There are only so many time signatures and so many chords I can use and it's not hard to find somewhere else somebody decided that an Em and a C chord sound good together.

My question is: is there some kind of rule of thumb or mindset I can follow to try and prevent this from happening again?

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    At least it wasn't Canon in D. – rrauenza Jun 14 '17 at 22:07
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    This is what happens to me with half the ideas I come up with. Don't let it slow you down. The other half of ny ideas seem completely original to me and then two years later I'm listening to the recording and I realize I just smashed R.E.M. together with Tool and Alanis Morissette or something but it's ok because it still sounds differrent from all of them and those are just my influences. Just keep going and you'll sound more and more like you with every song you write. – Todd Wilcox Jun 15 '17 at 1:24
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    Plagiarism is not illegal nor can anyone sue you for plagiarism. Plagiarism is just a violation of academic honesty. Perhaps you mean copyright infringement, which is completely unrelated to plagiarism. (Plagiarism relates to taking undeserved credit. Copyright protects legal rights.) – David Schwartz Jun 15 '17 at 4:41
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    There's a story about Ringo Starr and songwriting, which I don't remember exactly, but is something like - Ringo would write a song and play it to his fellow Beatles. "That sounds just like <a song> by <Bob Dylan> or someone else". Don't worry about it. – No'am Newman Jun 15 '17 at 9:24
  • @DavidSchwartz: Plagiarism is a special form of copyright infringement; copyright grants authors the right to be credited for their work. The term is also frequently (mis)used in acedemia, where it means something else, but in this context, plagiarism is most certainly a legal issue. – Marcks Thomas Jun 15 '17 at 9:39
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What do you mean by 'rhythm progression?' If you mean just the chord progression (the chord chart I found online shows Am G D Am for the verses) that wouldn't be unique enough to be a copyright violation. If the melody also is too similar to the Tom Petty song, you have a potential copyright problem. When you describe it as the same as Mary Jane's Last Dance, but with different lyrics, I imagine your melody is too similar to the Tom Petty song.

I have a quote somewhere (see edit below) that makes this point: a dilettante is unwilling to revise their work and a true composer is willing to change their ideas and explore possibilities. In that spirit I suggest applying all the techniques you can to modifying what you produced. Some of the results may seem forced, but going through the process is the important part.

  • A change in rhythm will have a big impact. The original has that distinctive syncopated rhythm. "She grew up" could be a eight-note pick up followed by two quarter notes sung over a basic guitar strum.
  • Change the meter. Most song lyrics can be modified to scan over different rhythms and meters.
  • Change the contour (direction) of the melody. Basically you can only move three ways: up, down, or stay on the same note. Try all three possibilities. Invert the contour. If the melody goes up then down, try down then up.
  • Change the pitches. If the starting pitch is the chord root, what happens when you try using the third of the chord. Try switching between chord based and scale based melody. SOL MI DO will match the I chord, but so will MI RE DO.
  • Substitute chords. Any given note of a scale can be harmonized with several chords so explore the options. MI RE DO could be harmonized with I V I or I bVII I.
  • Change the mode or add some flavor from other modes. If the tonality is plain diatonic what happens if some blues notes are added. In a major key the bVII or minor iv add some color the mixolydian or minor modes. You can flip the mode entirely an play a major key melody in minor.
  • Make tempo adjustments. Any of the above changes might require a tempo change to feel right.

If you try these things with the Tom Petty song, it will probably all sound lame, because you will be effectively destroying a cool song. That's probably how it will feel. But the processes and judging the results are the main point. Do any alternatives work? Would they work with a different lyric if the song mood has changed too much? Try it, keep what works, then move on. Hopefully in the future you will notice sooner when you are recreating an existing song and steer it in a different direction before you are fully committed to an idea.

EDIT:

Below is a scan of a notebook page I cut and pasted (the old fashioned way with paper, scissors, and tape) of a quote from Seigmeister, Harmony and Melody along with an transcription from a Beethoven sketchbook of five edits for a string quartet theme. I put this together for myself for inspiration.

enter image description here

  • If I waited for inspiration to write every song, I wouldn't have many. The process of composing doesn't always come naturally (to me), & having tools & tricks to push the creation forward have helped me tons. This is an outstanding catalog of tips. With time & practice, this work felt less forced; one of my favorite compositions was an exercise in writing a tune with strong melody notes (e.g., putting the 3rd or 6th of the chord in the melody). This doesn't mean it was good, but I was happy with it. I think this process is a good way to practice songwriting & develop those skills more quickly. – jdjazz Jun 15 '17 at 23:07
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    Legally, taking a copyrighted work and then modifying it is a “derivative work,” and still protected by the copyright for that work (that is, only the copyright holder and those he-or-she designates have the right to make a derivative work). I think the general thrust of the answer, then, is highly problematic from a legal perspective. I do not know enough of the law to give practical advice for how to “fix” this but I know just “rewriting in your own words” is insufficient. (I assume US copyright law here, since Tom Petty is American.) – KRyan Jun 16 '17 at 14:41
  • @KRyan, this sort of discussion might quickly lead to citing case law, which is beyond the scope of this site. In the US, it's possible to start with a copyrighted work & make enough modifications to reach the threshold of originality. In music, that threshold isn't too high given that you can't copyright an underlying harmonic structure. Writing a new melody & changing the feel is usually sufficient, as contrafacts in jazz illustrate. I think the process Michael Curtis describes is capable of producing original work under US law. But I'm no lawyer & this isn't intended as legal advice. – jdjazz Jun 16 '17 at 15:25
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    Just to be clear, my suggestion is about how to take the OP's song and rework it as a musical exercise not a copyright end run. The methods I listed - an incomplete list - can also be used with stock material like chord progressions, scales, rhythm patterns, etc. The legal aspects are interesting, but not what I meant to address. – Michael Curtis Jun 16 '17 at 16:54
  • "If you mean just the chord progression ... that wouldn't be unique enough to be a copyright violation." In theory, that's true. In practice, you can get sued for less than that, and maybe even win -- Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams lost a lawsuit for Blurred Lines because it sounded vaguely like Marvin Gaye's Got to Give it Up. Moreover, anyone who thinks your song sounds too similar to theirs can sue you whether your work is actually infringing or not. Their hope would be that you don't want a long legal battle and will settle out of court quickly. – Kef Schecter Jun 17 '17 at 16:16
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I think this is a great question that a lot of people can relate to. I think the question addresses a few big topics: What does it mean to be original? How does the creative process work? What are the legal implications of copying a song?

First, it's worth stating the obvious--that you're not the first person this has happened to. When writing "Impressions," Coltrane copied a section of a tune called "Pavanne" by Morton Gould. Then, Hank Mobley copied Coltrane when writing Chain Reaction. In Coltrane's case, this was probably subconscious. In Mobley's case, I would bet this started as a contrafact and was similar by design. Maybe Mobley was paying homage to Coltrane, or maybe he thought he could improve Impressions to the point of writing an altogether new song.

My take on this is that it's impossible to be perfectly original. There are a lot of things we should expect to repeat within a genre: chord changes, drum beats, baselines, chord voicings, and even small fragments of melodies and lyrics. Our musical ideas are based on what we have previously heard and played, and this is simply how the brain works: we rely on past examples when learning and creating. In his article entitled "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise", UVA psychologist Daniel Willingham puts it this way: "the mind much prefers that new ideas be framed in concrete rather than abstract terms." In music, those concrete terms consist of chord changes, drum beats, baselines, and everything else I mentioned above. I see reuse as an integral part of the creative process.

That said, our creative products evolve and develop with practice and experience. As a musician spends more time playing and listening, her musical vocabulary grows. With time and experience, her creative process will produce increasingly more original and more unique work. In jazz, this same progression occurs in one's improvisational abilities and is usually encouraged by teachers. When I first started improvising, my teacher told me to pick a pianist and transcribe + learn an entire album of his solos. I chose Kenny Barron, and so at the beginning, every time I improvised I sounded like a much worse, unsophisticated version of Kenny Barron. As I transcribed more and more artists and practiced a range of different techniques, I built up a wider variety of licks, phrases, and rhythmic ideas from which to create a solo. This gave me more freedom, and I felt like I was being more creative, even though I was still using a very similar process as when I was just starting.

I don't mind this quality of musical creation, and I don't think it devalues the creative process. This is the same process (of reusing and recycling old ideas) that has produced many outstanding pieces of music. Given how the process works and evolves, I think one's expectations for originality should be commensurate with the level of experience. We set different expectations for beginners vs. experts when it comes to technique, skill, etc. I think originality/creativity of songwriting should receive the same treatment. So I see nothing wrong with a new guitarist writing a song--intentionally or unintentionally--that is the same chords and melody as MJLD but with different lyrics.

In my mind, the only prohibitive considerations are what the law does and doesn't allow. This is probably only relevant if you plan to publish your music or perform in public. The legal implications of copying a song vary from country to country and fall under the domain of copyright law. The copyright laws surrounding music are fascinating, and there are various rules/tests for determining infringement, but I think that particular topic doesn't fit within the music.SE site. That might be better suited for https://law.stackexchange.com.

14

Welcome to the modern world. In olden times, it was customary to stand on the shoulders of giants and dwarfs alike in music, improving what you heard and creating new material from it. It was called "culture".

This is no longer feasible without being part of a legal framework organization that will manage micropayments to all sides possibly responsible for inspiration. That's part of the job a copyright society deals with when you become a member: It's the "That's a nice song you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it" business model.

As a result, street/amateur music with fluid borders to commercialism tends to play it safe and does not embed recognizable copyrightably complex material.

If you are successful with non-trivial material of your own, you are likely to get sued unless you are a member of a collection society.

When you are playing straight cover music, at least there are official rates you can pay in order to be left alone. If you are trying to create music of your own, good luck.

6

If you're serious about writing songs, you'll end up writing dozens or hundreds. Some of them you'll treasure, and some of them you'll laugh about later. This song is minor incident in that whole story. Keep it in perspective.

...supposing I had released my composition without noticing how similar it was and somebody wanted to take legal action against me for plagiarism, I don't know how I would defend myself.

Don't release anything that you know infringes somebody else's work -- or if you do, share credit up front. If you don't notice the resemblance until their lawyers show up, and they have a valid case, don't make a fool of yourself defending the indefensible. "My Sweet Lord" was "He's So Fine". It wasn't deliberate, but it happened. Sometimes a song writes itself because it's original and it's good, and sometimes it seems to write itself because you heard it on the radio. If you release something which includes material that is, under the law in your jurisdiction, unquestionably somebody else's composition, don't sacrifice your self-respect and waste your money fighting a losing battle. Cut a deal you can live with.

I don't know why you'd want to keep a song that everybody recognizes as somebody else's hit single. The reaction I hope to get from people when I play them a song is "that's cool", not "you're a plagiarist".

Well, I do know: Right now, this is 100% of your output, and it took two months to sweat the thing out. Letting go of it is hard.

The answer to that is, write three more. Fail faster! Steal a less distinctive chord progression and bang something out. Write a handful of throwaways quickly. Don't insist that everything has to be very original or very memorable. Original and memorable will happen, or they won't. The more the songwriting process becomes familiar and comfortable to you, the more you find a creative process that's productive for you, the more you'll find your own voice (and what it sounds like may surprise you). When you speak in your own voice, you won't have to worry about sounding like Tom Petty.

Even very experienced, successful songwriters write a lot of junk.

If putting pressure on yourself, forcing things, trying too hard, overthinking, and second-guessing yourself drive you crazy and rob you of joy in the songwriting process, don't do that. For some people it may work. I get the impression you're not one of those people. I could be mistaken, but if you really don't like being in a hole, stop digging.

Bin the song and move on. If there's something in it that's genuinely yours and you love that part, you can always return to it later. You've already gotten a massive return on your investment in it: You wrote one.

Writing imitative songs is a good exercise but you should view them as disposable, unless one of them happens to develop a distinctive and and unique personality of its own. But in that case you'll want to strip out any overtly plagiarized parts and replace them with something that's authentically yours. If you've got a memorable and original chorus, better to pair it with a bland verse than a plagiarized verse.

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You didn't write exactly what was the same between your song and the one which it is supposed to sound like, so it's a bit difficult to be specific. Modern songs can be considered to have three (or four) different aspects: the chord progression, the tune, the lyrics and the rhythm. I doubt whether all four aspects of your song were exactly the same as the song you "copied".

Chord progression: there are uncountable songs with the same I iv IV V chord progression. A chord progression cannot be copyrighted. It's true that the more songs there are with the same progression, the less differentiated every song becomes. One method of composing songs has one adding a new melody to the chord progression of an existing song.

Melody: here it pays to be wise by making up your own melody and phrasing.

Lyrics: again, these should be original

Rhythm: I often spice up my own songs by changing their rhythm and/or time signature.

So don't feel too bad if your song copies the changes of an existing song. See if you can reharmonise your melody to make the song stand out a bit more.

0

This is very common. When people first start to compose, they're more likely to come up with something heard somewhere else.

Scrap it and move on, or keep it... depends on what you were going for... if you want to sound like Tom Petty, then good on you

I will say, personally, anytime I hear a song that sounds exactly like another, I end up just wanting to listen to the other song.

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