“Stealing, you’ll go far in life. Actually, there is something funny about getting away with it.”
– Mike Judge
Back in 2001, I was noodling around with a riff that I felt was great. I made some demos of it but nothing really came of it.
One of the reasons might’ve been that I was always trying to figure out what Whitesnake melody i’d incorporated with what Judas Priest riff to come up with my mashup. I’ve been really interested in what’s influenced my writing ever since the mid 90’s when I noticed that a lot of songs have a really similar progressions and/or melodies. I hadn’t studied music formally at that point so I had no idea of how “limited” we are. This is NOT a bad thing, limits only serve creativity!
The most commonly referenced case of plagiarism in music is George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” which was almost a carbon copy of The Chaffons’ “He’s So Fine” except for the lyrics. If you listen to the songs in the video below you’ll hear it too. So, the judge ruled in favor of The Chaffons!
Weird fact, a couple of years later George Harrisson approached director Alejandro Jodorowsky about a role in his movie “The Holy Mountain”. Which part did he want? The thief.
Beginning in August of 2000 (when I got broadband access) i’d been going through the discographies of countless bands. I discarded the songs I didn’t like and ripped mp3’s of the ones I did. Why? Napster?! Let’s just say “Because: mp3-player!” and leave it at that.
I was recently going through the discography of a band called Anvil (check out their documentary, “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”!). Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden there it was, in the refrain. “My” riff from almost 15 years ago! I immediately sent their song “Scenery” and my riff to my cousin who said: “Yeah, i’ve been there so many times.”
Anvil being all shexy!
Although I couldn’t remember the word at the time, it reminded me of something that Dan Gilbert called “kleptomnesia”. I started researching it and found that there’s actually been some scientific studies of something similar called “cryptomnesia” done by F. Kräupl Taylor in 1965.
Something that kind of disturbed me was something I read about Helen Keller. Her story “The Frost King” was inspired by a story that’d been read to her 4 years prior called “Frost Fairies” by Margaret Canby. Some accounts claim that she was so distraught by this that she didn’t want or dare to write fiction anymore. If this is true then one can only imagine the stories we’ve lost. Even Canby admitted that Keller’s take on the story was superior.
Now, let’s get back to what Mike Judge was talking about at the beginning! We all have influences that we can “steal” from either conciously or subconciously. If we can hide our sources so well that people call it “fresh” or “genius” then we can stand there smiling and thinking: “If they only knew…”
I was in a writing session and we were stuck on a melody that didn’t feel right. While trying some different things I had a phrase in my mind that came up again and again. I knew it was taken from somewhere so I googled the lyrics. I found the song and told the other guy to come have a listen.
He dug the song and I said: “We should just rip that phrasing, just change the words and melody!”
The dude gave me the stink-eye and said “I don’t steal”, and we kept on working. We came up with something that just was bland enough to get by.
The song didn’t do much until 2 other guys got involved several months later and I reintroduced the idea for the melody. This time I didn’t reveal my sources and the first guy I wrote with didn’t even notice it. He just said that the song sounded better than what we came up with. It ended up becoming a band’s self-titled lead single, so… Yeah.
It’s pretty weird because the reason I wanted to work with the guy, besides him being funny as hell, was a song he’d written on that was kind of lifted from Bon Jovi, just different enough to pass.
It’s easy to get caught up with principles and morals. I have to admit, i’ve trashed more songs than I care to remember just because they felt too close to something or someone said: “You know, that reminds of this!”
The safest way to work WITH our influences is to mix and match as many of them as we can so that our work becomes this wonderful mesh of them all!
Quincy Jones made it very clear to me when he quoted his teacher Nadia Boulanger:
There are only 12 notes, until God gives us 13. And Quincy, I want you to know what everybody did with those twelve.’ Bach, Beethoven everybody- it’s the same 12 notes. Isn’t that amazing? All we have are twelve notes and you have to find your own sound through rhythm, harmony and melody. You have to find a way to make that your personal sound.
The first time I heard this story I was just awestruck. That’s when I realized that it doesn’t matter how hard we try to be “original”, these are the limits. Well, if you don’t count music that actually HAS more notes in their system. It’s all about how we can play within those boundaries and press up right against the edge as much as we can. If something sounds similar to something else? Screw it, all a part of the game! We’ve got to wear our influences well.
Also this week! I heard an interview with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth fame (or is it infamy?) who reminded me of something. I think we’ve touched on it here before but i’ll just repeat it!
When we look at our idols, those who we want to be like or those we just plain emulate, we can learn a lot more if we also study their influences. Let’s say that we’re some who’s just starting out playing music and our hero right now is Ed Sheeran.
By playing his songs we can embrace and take what we like from that. But that’s pretty limiting even if he’s got a broad repertoir. We don’t want to be a clone, right?
Next step is to look at what influences and informs Ed’s taste. So, we read up on the guy and find names like Eminem, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Damien Rice & Nizlopi. There you go! Admittedly, we might not like their musical stylings but can you guess the next step? Yup, look at their influences!
With Eminem we’ve got: Ice-T, Melle Mel, LL Cool J, Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Big Daddy Kane etc.
Van Morrison: William Blake, W.B Yeats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth amongst others.
Bob Dylan: Woody Guthrie, Little Richard, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson & Dylan Thomas (whom he got his surname from).
We could keep going but even here we’ve got some real sturdy stuff to work with! We just take what we like and leave the rest. Another thing we can deduce from this bunch of influences is that apparently language, rhythm, lyrics and words are key to what influenced both Ed and his influences’ influences!
So, it might just be that we’re drawn to music that put emphasis on the lyrics. This can also lead us down another rabbit hole into the world of literature which we can use to further develop our skills!
Go get yourself influenced now!