Nascent Copying of Melodies From Memory

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Have you ever written a song that sounded too familiar? Ever wondered if you wrote something into a song without recognizing it from a favorite or forgotten song? Was it coincidence? If you were able to locate the source of your inspiration, how'd that feel? Did you keep it? Scrap it? Change it? Shrug?

I remember this happening a lot when I was new to songwriting. I've noticed it happening again, naturally, more often now that I'm averaging a song every couple days.

If you have an example of this, feel free to post. Here's mine (please pardon the song post, I'm not trying to advertise my songs, I'm honestly convinced I didn't write the melody) - Listen for the organ arpeggio in the first few bars of the song.

Anecdotes, songs, reflections, and any other discussion on this topic are welcome.

IA's picture

Yes, yes.

I wrote one way back in 2014 and I'm still convinced the melody is from something, but can't figure out what.

And this year, both *42508 and *41624 sound a bit too familiar. Hmmmm!

There's a series of videos on Youtube, can't remember who by, but the premise is to compare songs where one is frequently claimed to have ripped off the other. What you realise fairly rapidly is that the songs are rarely as close as the claim suggests and that what triggers people to see them as copying is usually a minor part of a melodic run (especially when the notes run up or down part of a scale), or certain chord changes.

Our brains are very lazy things, if they can find a shortcut they will, so for remembering songs, unless deliberately memorised, we just remember key trigger points. When it comes to our own melodies, it's just as likely that part of a melody is triggering a memory of another song that it only vaguely resembles.

I've certainly been in that position a few times - more often than not, you'll never figure out what the other song is, and if you do, chances are it's only a partial match. A few years back I had a chorus with a melodic run that I loved but seemed familiar - it turned out the first few notes were the same as 'Somewhere In Between' by Kate Bush, but I went in a different direction after those notes. It was still enough to ping the memory of Kate's song.

In summary, unless you actually find that you have taken a whole melody from another song, don't worry about it; it's most likely your memory playing tricks.

It feels like I've found somebody's puppy and I can't find the wanted poster that should be on every corner. If I keep it, I'm going to feel pretty bad because it's not my dog.

I think I'm most likely to rip off my own melody from years ago. After all, I've been writing songs for - Geez - 53 years!

One FAWM, about 2015, I wrote an instrumental I was very fond of. When I played it for my sister, she started singing lyrics. I thought, "How cool is that, she's freestyling a whole song". Then the words registered. It was the Zit Remedy song from the TV Series Degrassi Junior High in the 80s.
Who knows how that melody emerged from the recesses of my mind?

dzd's picture

I know some people who intentionally write this way, take a well known melody/chords/lyrics then re-work them to make them "original" each their own I suppose. I rip myself off constantly most the time unintentionally, and plenty of others I'm sure(you like what you like, it's bound to seep in intentionally or not) I won't worry about it unless I start suing myself for copyright infringement Wink then there's bigger problems Smile

I read that Paul McCartney wrote a song that sounded so familiar to him so he asked the other Beatles if they'd heard it before. I do think a lot of music is just recalling music we've heard before without realizing it. And, yes, there are some who recommend intentionally doing it - one book is called "Steal Like an Artist," I think. I know that whenever I sit down at the piano keyboard and try to write an original song, my fingers automatically find songs that already exist - lol! Nothing is original - just our interpretation of something else.

As someone who loves British folk music I laugh about this with my brother all the time. We make jokes constantly about how there are only 7 actual British folk songs. Anytime I hear someone sing "Red is the rose where in yonder garden grows, and fair is the Lilly of the valley" I finish it with "For me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond."

Yes. I do this. Mostly it's fragments. It is definitely frustrating. I wrote an instrumental this year and I knew I had heard something like it before, but I couldn't place it. One of the themes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It wasn't exact and everything else I did with it was different so... shrug.

All my stuff is derivative, Nothing’s new under the sun.

my favorite story on this topic is from a long time ago- -- the jazz piano player (i'm forgetting his name at the moment) who woke up in the middle of the night and said 'wow, i just dreamed this fully formed amazing song', then went downstairs to the piano, played it, wrote down the music (or made a primitive recording, not sure), and then went back to sleep, convinced he had written an amazing song. and it was an amazing song (he just didn't write it!) , .... it was the jazz standard 'stardust' (which had already been a famous hit a few years before this story takes place). ah well!

yeah, happens to us all.

Like @corinne54, I often end up self-plagiarising. Though there are times I hit on a wonderful chord sequence and later realise it's one of Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms or Grieg. And of course, there is no such thing as a new blues song....

@mike skliar. Good story!

Here's a cool crowdsourced database to search music by melody. You can play it, whistle it, input "up, down, repeat", or even tap the rhythm, and you'll see similar tunes.

@sbs2018 It was “yesterday” and yup he did not release it for a while because it was so musically complete he couldn't believe he hadn't heard It somewhere.

The story of Paul McCartney and Yesterday is true and I just recently heard about that. It came to him in a dream and the original lyrics were:

"Scrambled eggs/Oh my baby how I love your legs/Not as much as I love scrambled eggs"

I have been having some strange dreams and shower thoughts that result in lyrical themes and melodies, so I can kinda relate. The only difference is I would 100% have gone with the “scrambled eggs” version because that verse is SOLID.

@nancyrost - What a great thing! Thank you! I’m almost afraid to find
out but I will certainly be using this tool to proof the melody in question; probably more.

@JamKar - I hear you. “We stand on the shoulders of giants,” and all that. It’s true, of course, and I am not deceiving myself to believe that anything I do is 100% original, however, there is a fine line between borrowing and stealing, even if you’ve stolen it wholesale with your subconscious memory.

If it sounds a little too specific sometimes, like deja vu, I begin to expect someone to hear my version and start singing along to the borrowed original (just like @ductapeguy and Degrassi).

It would not be the end of the world if there was a song twin out there but having no way to know if it’s new(ish) or not has been like not being able to remember the name of something before search engines existed.

Marc Maron did a bit in his last special about what it was like to not be able to remember things in the 90’s, like, “That guy, what was his name, oh, the peanut guy!” and the rest of the day your brain goes, “Peanut guy, peanut guy, peanut guy...”

dzd's picture

This is the reason I've always had a bit of an aversion to learning/doing covers as well.....enough seeps in without me learning note for note and bend for bend what someone else might have done. Every time I sit down at a piano I want to play some Tchaikovsky riffs that got drilled into my head as a youngster before I realized I had a say in such things. Muscle memory is a strange thing.

We should trade, @dzd; Tchai is my guy.

dzd's picture

[@jeustan] not that I play them well hahah but you're welcome to them Smile I'll pass on any crazy shower thoughts, have enough of those already Biggrin I do have to agree with you about that scrambled eggs verse though....I think I would of really enjoyed "yesterday" if that had stuck around.

Oh, thank you for the details I couldn’t remember!

@Jeuse It's happened to me a few times, especially when, as I'm writing the song, I'm hearing another singer in my head. I still keep the song because I am just an amateur writing songs for fun. One way I acknowledge a source is to mention it in the liner notes or even in the song itself. Current 50/90 example where I felt like I heard Tom Waits singing the song in my head. *42143

I haven’t heard the song again since I felt this last, which sounds very much (well in my head anyway) like A Mysterious Walk In The Woods, the song I made which I feel was outstanding compared to everything else (even if it was badly executed by myself) considering I am useless at making music of that kind. I remember I played Pokemon last year and I thought the song in the woods before a legendary appears was absolutely far and beyond what I’d heard anywhere else in video games. And when I was making a crap art album in January it made sense to try to make a dedication track to it, however I don’t know how similar it is since I’ve only heard the tune once, so I’ll listen to it now to now ive heard the track and it sounds nothing like it! Weird how at the time I thought it sounded exactly like it, But the track is pretty cool, with the howling style melody Smile however come to think of it there’s a song from Pokemon blue which sounds more like it, think it might be Viridian Forest OST? Strange!

yes yes yes. Two stories: my acapella trio came for rehearsal, and i sang them my "new" song, a throwback ditty, very macrame and peasant-dress mixed up hippy-dippy philosophical thing. Our alto said something like, "Mare, it's a great lyric. Do you think you could use a different melody than Bobby McGee?" Never was able to re-work it. It was seared into my brain too tight.

Maybe my third or fourth 5090, wrote one song i liked, and knew it wasn't going to be liked by my (then) band. Frustrating, yes. Unbeknownst to myself, i ended up writing not one but 2 more sets of lyrics to essentially the same melody. This is when I stopped keeping the music just in my head and tried getting down quick vocal sketches on the laptop, in hopes that would make them count as "used" in my mind's song-filing cabinet