I am wondering what connotes plagiarism--or at least a lack of artistic integrity--with regards to chord progressions. Could you indicate a progression which: a) should be used openly, b) shows a lack of creativity/plagiarism, and c) somewhere in the middle?

Here are some examples to get you thinking. In my view, these go from 'artist-specific' to 'standard':

  1. Coltrane Changes (major thirds cycle)

  2. The Beatles progression (I-II-IV-I)

  3. The Hendrix chord (dominant seventh sharp ninth)

  4. Ascending Augmented Progressions (i.e Stevie Wonder's For Once In My Life)

  5. Ascending Bass Lines (i.e. Bob Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone)

  6. La Folia

  7. Doo-Wop Progressions

  8. 12-bar blues

(I apologize that this list is sort of crude, but I only know of so many types of progressions)

This leads to my second question: is it fair to criticize a songwriter for using a 'highly specific' chord progression?

Thank you.

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    A chord progression alone is'nt even close to enough to make a song, and you can't copyright a chord progression in any event. – ex nihilo Sep 16 '19 at 23:16
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    @DavidBowling even in rock music, where sometimes just strumming chords is the song? – 286642 Sep 16 '19 at 23:29
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    Even in rock music there is usually a melody, and usually some rhythm. The shape of a tune tends to be carried more be melody and rhythm than by chord progressions. – ex nihilo Sep 16 '19 at 23:35
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    You should read up on copyright laws, perhaps the USPTO website. The copyright really applies to the words in many cases. There are classic melodies that cannot be considered original and are not plagiarized when used. Things can get grey. For example Led Zep is getting heat over stairway and apparently a hip hop artist won a case regarding a stolen beat. What we think is original is not necessarily covered by law. – ggcg Sep 17 '19 at 2:06

From a legal basis, who knows. Well, maybe the people at https://law.stackexchange.com/ do, but as there has been at least one court case that has found an artist guilty of copying the "feel" of another song, It doesn't seem that you'd ever be totally safe legally re-using a more tangible element such as a chord progression.

From a moral standpoint - again, you can find a whole range of opinions. As sampling became commonplace in the 80s and early 90s, many artists would lift whole sections of other tracks to use in their own works. Some felt this was - from an artistic point of view - plagiarism of the worst kind, while others felt that recombining existing elements in that way to make something new was an incredibly creative and artistically valid thing to do.

This leads to my second question: is it fair to criticize a songwriter for using a 'highly specific' chord progression?

You can criticise anyone for anything if you want - no-one owns the rules to what's fair! However, it is probably good for musicians to be honest about the inspiration that they take from other sources before being too hard on others for doing the same...

  • You cannot copyright a chord progression. Otherwise nobody would be able to use the four chord progression. – Dom Sep 17 '19 at 16:02
  • @Dom is there a law that explicitly states that? – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 17 '19 at 16:43
  • If people could copyright them they would. The consensus is a chord progressions alone are not enough to have a claim since they are one of the many basic musical elements that go into a product rather than unique elements like melody or lyrics. I suggest going to Law SE for more specifics. – Dom Sep 17 '19 at 17:18
  • @Dom The thing is though, people don't actually copyright elements of works - the copyright is on the whole work, and it would be for a court later to decide whether the copyright had been violated based on similarity of elements. I have heard people say that chord progressions can't be copyrighted, but after the "Blurred Lines" case people are generally more careful about making blanket statements about what would and would not be considered an infringement. – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 17 '19 at 19:06
  • Of course if you re-use a well-known basic progression that isn't strongly associated with any one song, it would be hard to argue that your song was a copy of a previous song that used the same progression (if, for example, there were many songs prior to both that used the same progression). However, if artist A came up with a very distinctive and novel chord progression, and artist B then produced a successful track using Artist A's progression, I think there would (in these post Blurred Lines times) be lawyers sniffing. – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 17 '19 at 19:10

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