Inspired By or Just Plain Copying: A Guide to “Borrowing” Song Ideas

constructive criticism

constructive criticism

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How can you practically draw inspiration from the songwriters you love without blindly ripping them off or spawning sound-alikes? How do you crack that famous “find your own voice” mantra? How do you temper the nagging doubt you’ll never be as good as your musical heroes? How can you stamp your own signature on your songwriting?

Let’s talk about it!

Firstly, take relief from biology. You can’t help it. You’re human! We are built to imitate and we are biased towards influence. Emulation is how we learn and how knowledge and culture is transferred. We’re literally hardwired for it neurobiologically.

Secondly, like language, music is a deeply structured system, overlaid on and partly shaped by a set of behaviors maintained over thousands of years by intergenerational transmission. Anything that makes music easier to process, capture, and recall has a greater chance of being passed on and therefore increases its influence. Things like the invention of paper, printing, chord charts, notation, electricity, mass manufacture of instruments and the ability to record music, transmit and broadcast it globally.

In the last few decades, the explosion of the internet has given everyone the nearly unlimited to create their own music, digitize and store those files, and distribute them from any location with a decent connection. In other words, its influence on shaping our tastes is hard to avoid.

Thirdly, being inspired by artists whose music you love is a good thing!

Creativity doesn’t come out of the blue. We all need inspiration. The belief that to create, inspiration comes from something no one’s thought of before, from a complete vacuum, just isn’t how it works. Rather, the opposite is true. The greats are open about who inspired them and the concept of being apprenticed to a master is a time-honored tradition.

“We are dwarves on the shoulders of giants.” -Bernard de Chartres

From Bob Dylan’s devout plunder of Woody Guthrie’s knapsack to Madonna’s “open borrow” of Marilyn Monroe’s style kit, k.d. lang’s homage to Patsy Cline and Prince’s wholesale absorption of James Brown and Little Richard’s tools of trade, great artists have paid scrupulous attention to their predecessors.

Some of the most successful musicians have had enormous influence over those that came after. Indeed it’s hard to imagine certain artists’ successes even existing without their roads being paved prior: no Eric Clapton without BB King, no Rolling Stones without Muddy Waters, no Eminem without Ice-T.

So how do we morph admiration into inspiration while avoiding unacknowledged theft?

“We all have that small voice that tells us we’re rubbish, and we need to learn when to silence it. Early in the songwriting process, comparisons do nothing but harm: sometimes I put on a David Bowie record and think, ‘Why do I bother?’” -Fyfe Dangerfield

Here are some thoughts on how.

1. Time in the Ring

Start by taking some time to identify your musical influences — both the ones you’ll freely admit to and the subtle, pre-conscious ones. Remember that as a songwriter, the most powerful weapon at your disposal is your particular point of view; how you see the world, your perception of it, and the things that you’ve experienced.

So take time to reverse engineer those early influences and discover how they’ve contributed to your musical ethos. Here are a few questions that can help you generate your thoughts on the matter.

  • What is it specifically about the artists or material that you love so much?
  • Are there certain references in the songs, great rhymes or structures that ring your bell?
  • Do the artists experiment with genre or change direction in their careers?
  • Are there certain periods that resonate more or less?
  • Were they ahead of the curve and what made them so?
  • Who taught them or influenced their early work?

When you have greater clarity about exactly what it is you’re responding to, you can interpret it more effectively and explore specific elements you could incorporate in the development of your sound that go far beyond mere mimicry. There is no recipe here, but curiosity and research will sharpen your artistic acumen.

2. Create Separation

Once you are clear about which techniques or elements of your favorite artist’s style really appeal to you, you can pluck them out of the voice or oeuvre of that artist and bring them into your own creative process. Refracted through the prism of your own style and sound, these elements will take on new life.

Just because you start playing a Höfner bass doesn’t mean your music will all of a sudden sound like Sir Paul McCartney’s.

All music and all artists function within some context, from the social milieu to what was happening economically, what was top of the pops at the time or the characteristics of the studio used. In other words, you don’t have to worry about borrowing something specific from another artist if you give it new life in your own musical context. So focus on the elements of your inspirational source that could actually fit your context and make them work for you, in doing so, creating some distance between them and you.

3. The Sum Is Greater Than the Parts

The best songs often take two disparate ideas and make them fit together without the seams showing. An idea for a lyric inspired by one artist combined with a bass line inspired by another. Whatever you can do to stimulate the cogs of connection, the engine of creativity will power you forward.

This includes multiplying your sources. The more inputs you have, the more variable your output can be when you start to create your own sound. Synthesizing several of your influences is an effective way to work towards a unique voice. Even adding just one extra input can put a whole new spin on the original mix.

The bravest artists don’t fear failure because they’ll try the myriad options available to risk arriving at somewhere or something original. They will actively seek out new inputs to meet older influences, for better or worse. Failure becomes part of their creative process, in the sense of multiple prototype songs being created, before the best one is released. They seek multiple sources of inspiration in a concerted effort to work towards a definitive sound.

So go forth and borrow!

Don’t stop here!

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