I have recently started composing using some knowledge that I got after a few months of studying counterpoint and harmony (well it is more like trying to compose). And I have mentioned that quite often I unintentionally reinvent in a slightly different manner the existing themes (recently it was "Hava Nagila" and something from Grieg's "Peer Gynt"). The problem is I do not immediately notice, that this is a "reinvention", and that my memory did a trick on me. Who knows, maybe I even have more of that "inspired" themes in my compositions, which I have just failed to notice.

Question: Is this a common thing while composing and how does one deal with it? How do I get sure that this is genuinely my composition and not an implicit memory of an already existing one?

P.S. If it is relevant I do the "composing" in Sibelius (free version) in Common Practice Period style.

3 Answers 3


Yes, this is a common phenomenon. I think this happens to everyone who writes music, regardless of style.

If you're writing in Common Practice style specifically, then I think you'll find it very hard to come up with a theme that doesn't sound like you're ripping off some other composer. That's because Common Practice rules are very restrictive and defines a limited landscape of musical possibilities. That landscape has already been well explored over the last several hundred years, so finding something novel there is challenging, if not impossible. You can combat this by taking ideas but making them your own. Tweak them. Recombine them in new ways. Etc. There's a saying: "Good composers borrow. Great composers steal."

The limitations of Common Practice music is why it evolved into chromaticism which evolved into atonalism. Composers needed to find new ground to explore. The 20th century was characterized by a mad dash to explore a vast new musical landscape which had been opened up by those like Schoenberg and Debussy and Ives. The appeal of atonal composition is that you get to design a completely novel set of rules which you will follow in the piece. And, as listener or analyzer, each piece needs to be approached on its own terms because they are all so different.

So, if you like Common Practice music, power to you, and get used to ripping off the greats. But I'd encourage you to give atonal music a try. You'll have a much larger palette of colours to work with, and you'll find accidental plagiarism much less likely.

  • 1
    thank you for your advice. If I understand correctly chromaticism does not equal atonality. Do you also think that finding smth interesting in this landscape (chromaticism) might also be challenging or you already included chromaticism in common practice? And one more question: Is Wagner also considered common Practice?
    – NickQuant
    Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 19:10
  • 1
    @NickQuant The common practice period basically spans the time during which functional tonal harmony was the norm and Roman numeral analysis was possible. Strictly speaking, chromaticism is just the inclusion of non-diatonic pitches, and has been a thing since the beginning of the common practice period. What I was referring to is how chromaticism increased over the years, climaxing in the late 19C with music that stretched those rules to the max. Wagner is perhaps the best (known) example of extreme chromaticism. Analyzing Wagner using Roman numerals is challenging, but mostly doable.
    – ibonyun
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 21:46
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    @NickQuant Atonalism, on the other hand, is the complete breakdown of the functional harmonic system. Roman numeral analysis is no longer useful. It's what happened once chromaticism was pushed to the max, the next logical step was to break the system entirely: no keys, no tonics, no functional harmony. (This is sort of a pop-psych version of music history. There is more nuance.)
    – ibonyun
    Commented Oct 18, 2019 at 21:49

Writing a new piece in the language of common practice is almost impossible without using motives or melodic/rhythmic patterns that others have already invented. Like a child can't learn to speak without using the words it has learnt by it's environment - also we are not able to express ourselves musically without using the musical elements we have adapted in our learning history, some are conscious and the most are unconscious. The more we are aware of this fact the less we will be disappointed when we realize that what we are "saying" someone other has said this too, it doesn't mean that we have heard it. It is also impossible to have a thought or to google a sentence without finding some references in the web.

So don't bother, this is no question of plagiarism as long it is not expressively planned. It happens all the time to each of us.


yes it happens. I once "wrote" the theme from Rocky as a 3/4 ballad. It was a long time before I found out ...

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