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Why Copy and Steal From Music?

     In this post I will be making the distinction between the act of copying or stealing from another artist as tool in the creative process and, along the way, give you some suggestions of what to look for in other artists music when you are actively using any of these approaches.

     This is something that every artist does, at some level, and more or less consciously. So, it is nothing to be ashamed of as it is rooted in the way our brains operate. We are able to conceive of new ideas and scenarios but it is always based on something that already exists. That can be more or less familiar to us but we have already experienced it at some level. That said, the artistic decisions we make are a reflection of how we choose to express ourselves, our vision of how things should be, based on the knowledge and experiences we that have acquired.

     I think that acknowledging this fact helps us to feel released from any type of constraint and somehow empowers the artist to create his own personal artistic vision based on other artists ideas and technique, by appropriation. This is how we evolve, we learn from and are influenced by each other. So, copying or stealing will always be part of the creative process, at some level. But it is also important to distinguish one from another.

     Copying another composer’s work may be seen as a means to an end, more likely as a way to understand how certain musical results are achieved. It is part of the learning process; by imitation while learning the technique; to accumulate knowledge by dissecting and emulating a particular musical work.

     On the other hand, stealing doesn’t mean that we are going to plagiarize the work of another composer. Instead, stealing is a way of tapping into a pool of creativity and inspiration; to use musical cues over which you will base and expand your work by remixing, replacing or re-contextualizing. In other words, it is using the work of others as a starting point for your original creative output, to create something new that represents you as an artist. If you think of it, this is reminiscent of what jazz and blues musicians do when they use standards and re-harmonize or re-arrange them.

     So, you what are actually doing is to somehow transform or even improve, according to your vision, someone else’s ideas. When you are able to make it yours, then you are stealing!

“A good composer does not imitate; he steals,”

Igor Stravinsky


     We have already established that we learn from the ones that came before us. Originality is a product of how that knowledge is put to use so, aim for that. Aim for how you can effectively and genuinely express yourself. We all have our uniqueness so, what you have to do is to find the voice to express it while pulling inspiration from other artists; adapting your sources and the styles to fit the project you are working on, making it yours!

     The following ideas are only suggestions as you may want or feel the need to focus on other elements that will better serve your purposes as a creator. But generally, the process starts with these basic principles:

  1. Listening as a whole for the general vibe or feel
  2. Isolating specific elements that inspire you
  3. Deciding how close to the source you want to be

     When you do this process consciously, you have a better control over what is actively influencing you. The elements that you can be on the look out for may be:

  1. The instruments that are being used; texture
  2. The rhythm, energy/vibe
  3. The tempo
  4. Bass and drums groove; guitar riffs
  5. Harmony; the type of chord formations;
  6. The harmonic rhythm
  7. The melodies; step-wise or jump movement; more or less static; the melodic arch
  8. Modulation sections
  9. Form; dynamic level between sections; contrasts
  10. Production elements; the use of sound design; certain types of FX; the mix, etc.
  11. Lyrics content
  12. Anything else that strikes you!

     Ideas are not copyrighted and you can make of them what you want and turn them into new ideas; your ideas. This is the case with music or any other art form. Just be aware of this process and know when you are copying or stealing. Both are important in their own way, as they contribute to your identity as a musician – what you choose to study as a reflex of what your interests are and your artistic vision. And now, it’s time to work! Please, leave your comments and suggestions below.

Happy Composing!

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