The Line Between Borrowing Music And Stealing It

If you are a songwriter, you may have discovered at some point that there is a fine line between writing truly original music and borrowing music ideas from other songwriters. As artists and creative thinkers, we aim to mirror what inspires us. Likened to a romantic relationship, where one person copies his or her partner out of adoration, imitating what we see on a canvas, or what we hear in our headphones is another way we show our appreciation.

Growing up I learned to play the piano, and for some reason, I always gravitated towards playing Billy Joel’s music. What started as an appreciation for his music soon became a foundation for my own; when I first started writing songs, I found myself imitating his “Billy Joel Chords”.

At the time, I imitated his work because I wanted to understand his mindset while writing.  I was borrowing his musical ideas, to pave the way for my own.  I wanted to know why he chose to write certain chords in certain ways, I wanted to feel exactly what he was feeling at the time he wrote each of his songs.

When writing a song, there’s a fine line between imitation and emulation.

Whereas at the time I was imitating his work to guide myself, there comes a time where we must stop imitating and start emulating.  Emulation is where the bits and pieces we have imitated or borrowed from, run out; our own creative process obtrudes them.  In this moment our voice shines as it is juxtaposed with the voices of our creative heroes.  If we cease to emulate, then essentially we are stealing.

Here are 3 popular cases where borrowing music ideas turned into stealing:

1. Robin Thicke and Pharrell William’s “Blurred Lines,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up.”  The resolution: The Jury ruled against Robin Thicke and Pharrell.

2. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  The Resolution: Tom Petty was awarded songwriting royalties, and was granted a 12.5 % writing credit on the song.

3.  Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend.” and The Rubinoos “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.”  The Resolution: Avril Lavigne settled for an undisclosed sum of money.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery for a songwriter, than emulation is the sincerest form of creativity.

Perhaps it is not what we put on the page, but who or what inspired us to write on the page in the first place.  It is about both what we put in—our influences, and what we pour out—ourselves.  When it comes to emulation, we use a palette of colors that our influences have given us, and we paint on our own canvas.  All of the colors merge into a new beautiful hybrid piece..

2 Comments
  • Stephanie Hernandez
    Posted at 03:04h, 13 July

    I want to become a singer

    • Trystan Matthews
      Posted at 05:44h, 07 November

      Hi Stephanie, terrific! I highly recommend singing lessons to anyone wishing to begin a singing career. And when you need to make a demo reel to showcase your voice – we can help!

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