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I have effectively no training in music theory, and have only ever produced a handful of "songs" (unpublished files on my hard drive, resulting from aimless experimentation with production software).

While I attempt to be as original as possible, I invariably realize, long after I've finished a piece, that it shares a significant component with an existing song. I subconsciously copied something major from another song, while under the impression I was creating it from scratch. I understand the truism that good artists copy, and great artists steal, but the similarities are too great to remain satisfied with my piece as an original work.

Is this is a common psychological barrier in music production? Are there any solutions to help ensure the time spent producing is actually yielding original content?

  • There is nothing new under the sun. Just write/play what you enjoy! – The Chaz 2.0 Jun 2 '18 at 19:59
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    "I understand the truism that good artists copy, and great artists steal" -- I would be interested to know how you interpret this oft-cited piece of wisdom. The only way it makes sense to me as anything other than a platitude is that when you copy something, you copy it from someone else, but when you steal it you make it your own. – David Bowling Jun 2 '18 at 22:58
  • @DavidBowling - perhaps Beethoven had something like this in mind when he mischievously told his publisher that his string quartet opus 131, the Sturm und Drang one, was "stolen together out of various bits of this and that". – Scott Wallace Jun 5 '18 at 11:38
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The music we create is often a fusion of bits a pieces created from inspiration - whether consciously or subconsciously. The satisfied ear doesn't care that a chord progression has been used in thousands of pop songs.

If you want to spice things up a little bit you could try reharmonisation. That's fun, and you can end up with a completely different feel and sound. I often take MIDI files from old games (Donkey Kong ... David Wise) and reharm them. The end result is nothing like the original and is a unique track in its own right.

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One thing you could try (which works for me) is to make the melody one of the last things you write. In most circumstances, the melody is the only non-lyrical part of a composition that can be copyrighted. So it's the main thing that will make your song sound like another.

I usually have the style, beat, chord progression, and lyrical idea before I ever start working on the melody. And then, I try not to go with the first melodic idea that comes to me (because I probably heard it before, or it's obvious enough to have already been used).

I used to be in the same boat as you, but since I developed this process I have never felt that any of my compositions significantly reminded me of anything I'm at least familiar with.

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This is how people learn in all aspects of life, by imitation. What you digest will eventually get fused in your brain and come out as something "new" and creative. In my opinion the only way to avoid it is to not listen to music. But this would effectively turn you off. We are feedback loops, listening to each other and repeating what we hear with slight variations. I'd argue that one could avoid direct plagiarism by listening to a wide variety of music. This broadens the scope of your data input and you will likely create a fusion that is truly new.

It happens to me all the time, riffs from my favorite bands creep up when I least expect it. When we were young my friend (a bassist) and I (a guitarist) would spend hours trying to come up with "original" jazz chord progressions. After learning enough about substitution it became apparent that the ones we liked were actually variants of a standard progression. We rediscovered the wheel.

I would strive to understand the way humans learn and embrace it. Open up to all the musical sources you can, even ones that would make you cringe. Like I said the variety will keep you on your creative tones.

  • “the only way to avoid it is to not listen to music” – relevant. – leftaroundabout Jul 6 '18 at 16:47
  • I did say "in my opinion". Thanks for the culture lesson. – ggcg Jul 6 '18 at 16:49
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I write Celtic tunes on my mandolin, and run into the same issue. Sometimes I rewrite an existing tune in its entirety! One trick I use is to run my composition (play it) into an iPhone app called Tunepal, which attempts to recognize Celtic pieces, and provides a list of possibilities which I can listen to. There may be other apps (Shazam comes to mind) that do this for pop songs.

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