Is It Plagiarism?

On one level, I would say that I've never written an original note. After all, there are only 12 tones, and it's all been done before. Everything I have written has been at the inspiration from somebody else's music. I feel no shame, because "borrowing" from others is a time-honored tradition, even among the masters. 

I did have one eerie experience. I began wanting to emulate some of the British masters. chiefly Ralph Vaughn Williams, with maybe a bit of Holst or Bliss thrown in. At this point, I was unfamiliar with VW's Pastoral Symphony (at least so far as I knew). To my horror, I discovered that my primary motif was identical to the opening parallel triad in the Symphony. Could this have been the re-emergence of a forgotten memory, or just a complete coincidence? 

Any opinions?

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  • Best to get familiar with copyright laws. VW's music is certainly in the public domain, so I feel pretty safe with that tune. As you note, the squeeze comes in with more recent music. Probably if you try to sell something for money. In most cases, if you're just covering a musical idea, the worst that can happen is that they can demand that you take your stuff off the market. I might be wrong about that. 

    I'm not so concerned about getting sued. (You can't get blood from a stone). More the insult of being called a copy-cat.

    I, personally, would be wildly flattered to have somebody cite me as an inspiration.

  • ‘On one level, I would say that I've never written an original note. After all, there are only 12 tones, and it's all been done before.’

    I must object that it has NOT all been done before; in fact, the reverse is true. A calculation has been made of the total number of melodies it is possible to create, using just 32 notes in succession. The resultant number (after discounting some melodies being identical and played in different keys, and other problems that might crop up) is:

    12 * 13^31 / 12 or,

    34059943367449284484947168626829637

    I don’t think you can say, it’s all been done. We are just talking about melodies now, and not even mentioning the development or variation of a theme, or harmonies, or contrapuntal writing, which would push the number up much further.

    See the calculation here:

    http://everything2.com/title/How+many+melodies+are+there+in+the+uni...

    “Everything I have written has been at the inspiration from somebody else's music.”

    Some scholars call this “the anxiety of influence,” though I am sure it varies from person to person. I don’t see it as a problem, since it is inspiration that makes it POSSIBLE for one to compose.

    “I feel no shame, because ‘borrowing’ from others is a time-honored tradition, even among the masters.”

    It depends what you mean by “borrowing,” of course.

    ”I began wanting to emulate some of the British masters. chiefly Ralph Vaughn Williams, with maybe a bit of Holst or Bliss thrown in.”

    I think this is where the “problem,” if there is one, begins. Inspiration is one thing, but “emulation” and imitation are something else altogether. In religion, some theologians talk about the “imitation of Christ,” but a modern person cannot take the idea seriously that a Christian should strive to turn water into wine, heal the sick with miracles, overturn the tables of the money changers, exactly as Jesus of Nazareth did, call the religious leaders “vipers and hypocrites,” and end up crucified on a hill just outside Jerusalem.

    Likewise, I don’t think an “admirer of Vaughn Williams,” should be tempted to write in the same mood, with the same tonalities, with similar orchestration, or even in an “English style,” trying to evoke the feel of the countryside in Devonshire. If one strives to do this, it is no wonder that one may end up with something too close, or almost the same as the figure one is trying to “emulate.”

    Vaughn Williams did what he did, as did Bliss, Holst and Elgar. Allow their spirits to rest in peace. Otherwise, you may raise their ghosts up to haunt us here and now. Do something new, and be inspired by such composers, without feeling the need to emulate and imitate them. I don’t know whether what you are talking about is really plagiarism, as such (conscious or unconscious) But why not avoid all doubt, simply by launching out in your own direction?

  • Well, and here I just like making pretty sounds and to feel that I'm expressing what I feel.  The VW-like piece in question is here.  https://soundcloud.com/artlowell/a-country-place

  • So name your piece a "variation" on that melody. It's NOT plagiarism if you give credit to the artist.

  • I should add that composers have been making variations on each others' music for eons. I play a classical guitar piece by Fernando Sor called "Variations on a Theme by Mozart". Fernando was able to write this piece however he felt like writing it but he gave Mozart credit for the inspiration, (and yes they had copyright laws back then).

    As composers in college we get the plagiarism lecture every semester but on the other hand we copy and often mimic other composers' music for the purpose of learning. It's OK to copy an artist' work as long as you give credit to the artist and you make NO money on it. If you want to make money with someone else' music then just pay a fee to ASCAP and buy a license to do so...That is how the bars get away with making money on jukebox music.

    I wouldn't worry about it until you're on the Jay Leno Show.

  • And happy composing to everybody....it is a wonderful life.

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