Archive for the ‘Songwriting’ Category

Accidental Influences and Unintended Plagiarisms

April 30, 2009

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“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” – Pablo Picasso

Chances are you’ve heard this or one of the abundance of quotes, clichĂ©s, truisms, axioms, or maxims describing the fine line between homage and theft, borrowing and copying, and imitation and impersonation.

And if you’ve been writing songs for any length of time, chances are even better that you’ve more than once written an amazing composition, sat down with your guitar to play it for your best friend and heard something like this…

“Oh. That’s Lay Lady Lay, by Bob Dylan”

No, really, it’s not…no…wait…hmm. I guess it is.

Bob, I'm glad I didn't have to pay you everytime I tried to re-write your song

Bob, I'm glad I didn't have to pay you everytime I tried to re-write your song

If this has happened to you, don’t feel bad. I’m here to commiserate.

I’ve conjured the chord progression of “Lay Lady Lay”, independently, at least four or five times. If I had a dime for every time I attempted to write “Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay”, well, I’d have enough to get me drunk and foot-taxied out to the dock itself.

And don’t get me started on Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts”.

Really, though, neither of us should feel bad. We can’t help it.

The point is not that these songs we accidentally pilfer were necessarily easy to write — though the best often seem simple, and therein lies no small part of their genius. The point is that, as music aficionados, we’ve consumed and digested these songs so completely, they’ve seeped into our subconscious mind and forever infected us with their viral essences.

Further, it is not necessary that we’ve directly ingested the influence in question. We could just as easily have absorbed these influences from the culture at large, in the same way that every musician who has written a modern pop song owes a debt of gratitude to The Beatles, even if they have never listened to the band first hand.

Sometimes when we’re trying to create something wholly original, these little bits of pre-digested influence spew forth. If we’re lucky, the pieces come out rearranged, mixed with our own contributions, in some fresh and exciting new configuration.

Other times, the bits of unintentional plagiarism plop out fully assembled, whole hog, and cause our hearts to sink when (if) we finally realize our mistake. It can all make you feel a bit like the computer in Searle’s Chinese Room, that has taken its input and spit out a perfect translation without ever truly understanding the processing that has occurred.

The most famous, real-world example of unintentional plagiarism can be found in George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord”, from his 1970 classic triple album All Things Must Pass.

Exhibit A: "My Sweet Lord"

Exhibit A: George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”

My Sweet Lord (1970) – George Harrison

“My Sweet Lord” was first conceived in December, 1969 when George Harrison “slipped away after a show in Copenhagen from a press conference and began vamping some guitar chords, sitting the chords to the words ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Hare Krishna.'”

He further developed the song’s music and lyrics with musicians in his band and, in the following week, Billy Preston, for whom he was supervising the production of an album. The song was recorded for Preston’s album and the sheet music printed.

Harrison recorded it himself in late 1970 as the first single from his long awaited solo debut, All Things Must Past. It shot to number one, and soon after, the holder of the copyright for The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine”, Bright Tunes, filed suit against Harrison for copyright infringement.

Exhibit B: "He's So Fine"

Exhibit B: The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”

He’s So Fine (1963) – The Chiffons / Robert Mack

Excerpt from a reprint of Joseph C. Self’s 910 Magazine article (1993) detailing the court case:

The Court noted that HSF incorporated two basic musical phrases, which were called “motif A” and “motif B”. Motif A consisted of four repetitions of the notes “G-E-D” or “sol-mi- re”; B was “G-A-C-A-C” or “sol-la-do-la-do”, and in the second use of motif B, a grace note was inserted after the second A, making the phrase “sol-la-do-la-re-do”. The experts for each party agreed that this was a highly unusual pattern.

Harrison’s own expert testified that although the individual motifs were common enough to be in the public domain, the combination here was so unique that he had never come across another piece of music that used this particular sequence, and certainly not one that inserted a grace note as described above.

Harrison’s composition used the same motif A four times, which was then followed by motif B, but only three times, not four. Instead of a fourth repetition of motif B, there was a transitional phrase of the same approximate length. The original composition as performed by Billy Preston also contained the grace note after the second repetition of the line in motif B, but Harrison’s version did not have this grace note.

Harrison’s experts could not contest the basic findings of the Court, but did attempt to point out differences in the two songs. However, the judge found that while there may have been modest alterations to accommodate different words with a different number of syllables, the essential musical piece was not changed significantly. The experts also pointed out that Harrison’s version of MSL omitted the grace note, but the judge ruled that this minor change did not change the genesis of the song as that which previously occurred in HSF.

With all the evidence pointing out the similarities between the two songs, the judge said it was “perfectly obvious . . . the two songs are virtually identical”. The judge was convinced that neither Harrison nor Preston consciously set out to appropriate the melody of HSF for their own use, but such was not a defense.

Harrison conceded that he had heard HSF prior to writing MSL, and therefore, his subconscious knew the combination of sounds he put to the words of MSL would work, because they had already done so. Terming what occurred as subconscious plagiarism, the judge found that the case should be re-set for a trial on the issue of damages.

The judge ruled in favor of Bright Tunes. To the tune of $260,103.

I don’t disagree with the Court’s assessment of the similarities in the least. But I do take exception with the decision in favor of the copyright holder.

Clearly, the song “My Sweet Lord” sounds very much like the song “He’s So Fine”.

Clearly, the song “My Sweet Lord” is not the same song as “He’s So Fine”.

George Harrison conceded that he’d heard “He’s So Fine” before recording “My Sweet Lord” but admitted to no more conscious influence than the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ “Oh Happy Day” during its composition.

This case set the precedent for nearly every musical copyright infringement suit to come during the sample-happy 80s and 90s. Cases that mostly had little to do with songwriting and more to do with repurposing existing recordings of old performances in new contexts.

To me, now, in 2009, both songs sound as equally distinct and distant members of the pop-culture cannon. I could not confuse the two as the same song, and in a case where the judge has essentially ruled-out intent-to-infringe, what other criterion is there?

Here, on the precipice of the Tweens (oh, yah, they’ll be calling them that more quickly than we reckoned our Oughts), we ingest and regurgitate our pop culture so fast that no court in the same situation would be able to justify a similar ruling. Not in these early days of convergent, mash-up, youtube euphoria.

I didn’t veer into legal territory for a cheap scare. I only mean to demonstrate that accidental influence can affect even the most distinguished of songwriters. You shouldn’t make your songwriting decisions based on fear of getting sued. That’s not going to happen to you, unless you should someday become bigger than Jesus.

While there are many valid artistic reasons (outside of an explicit cover) for appropriating parts of a song – composition, arrangement, lyrics, samples of the actual recording – I don’t think anybody wants to write the same song that someone else wrote 30 years ago. That defeats the whole purpose of songwriting, in my mind.

So, how can we protect ourselves from the possibility of accidentally pinching someone else’s tune?

Here’s what I do.

1) Use your ears.

Be honest with yourself. Does your song sound a lot like another song?

Listen to the chord progression, rhythm, and melody. More importantly, consider the three of those together. You can get away with any one of those sounding vaguely familiar, but the more aspects your song has in common with another, the harder it will be to avoid comparisons.

Don’t spend too much time on this exercise, it’s usually a pretty immediate recognition once you’ve committed to looking for similarities as its own activity.

If you do happen to think yours resembles another song, take a breath and don’t worry yet. You’re probably just being overly self-critical. Move on to step 2.

2) Use Someone Else’s Ears

Play your music for a trusted, knowledgable third-party. Don’t prime their opinion by mentioning your suspected doppelgänger at this point. Just play the song and ask for feedback.

Ask them if it sounds like any other songs they can think of. Ask the question even if you think you have invented an entirely new genre with this one.

If your friend does not immediately identify a song you’re subconsciously ripping off, you’re probably in good shape. Repeat the exercise for another friend or two and be done with it.

If your friend DOES call you out on the similarities, all hope is not necessarily lost. Sometimes a minor tweak to the melody is all that’s necessary to erase the similarities. Sometimes it is merely a single yet crucial note suggesting the earlier tune.

Always get a second opinion. It is possible our trusted critics are simply unreliable sources. You may also get a sort of wishy washy this-sounds-a-little-like-that response that may not be good for much.

For example, here’s a song that my friend Dan wrote and we recorded in 2005. I played it for my Mom and the first thing she said was “that sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel song”. Not a specific song, just like a song that should’ve been theirs.

Palisades (2005) – Dan & Jon

You’ll probably get that a lot. Your song sounds like another song or another artist. Know that there’s a fine line between your intent and accidentally going too far. Check out the supposed similarities and if you disagree, then disregard their opinion.

In the case of our song, I took my Mom’s feedback as a compliment and validation of our intent.

3) Use the cold, indifferent, mechanical ears of the internet.

You could try a music search like Midomi that takes a sound (a hum / whistle / or recording of a song) and sets that as the criteria for a search. This is commonly used for identifying a song for which you have no name or artist information, but why not use it to see if it thinks your song sounds like another?

I’m not sure how accurate or consistent the searches are, but it worked for me twice on the same song last weekend.

I was strumming a jaunty D – C with some sing-songy playground melody. It sounded very familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I pulled out the iPhone version of Midomi and played the chorus into the phone for about 10 seconds.

“Gigolo Aunt” by Syd Barrett.

Of course! That made perfect sense. I had been listening to Wouldn’t You Miss Me? The Best of Syd Barrett just the week before. That should’ve been obvious.

I changed up the melody a little and added a chord change. Played it back to Midomi.

“Handshake Drugs” by Wilco.

Damn it! It was, it really was. Time to throw that one out.

4) Don’t worry about it.

If you’re happy with the song, who cares? Unless you’re selling millions of albums, nobody else will care, I can tell you that much.

Just do us all a favor and think twice before unleashing another “What’s Up” by Four Non Blondes on the world.

I pledge to do the same.

For the love of all that is holy, please spare us another "What's Up"

For the love of all that is holy, please spare us another “What’s Up”


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Song: Second Law

April 21, 2009

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Second Law (2009) [Download]

I love working with VSTi’s. They provide a cheap (sometimes free) alternative to packing my studio space with a bunch of expensive instruments that I can’t afford and I don’t really know how to play anyway. Sure, the real thing sounds better, and if you have the luxury of easy access to hardware analog synths and grand pianos, you’d be foolish not to use them.

I don’t own a piano. Can’t play piano. But I want to learn.

This song started with a simple idea to piece together a few chords on the piano and see what would come of it. I’d sit at my console with no preconceived notion of a song, and use the DAW as a songwriting tool, starting with the piano — in this case, the TruePiano VSTi that comes with Cakewalk Sonar 8.

TruePiano is modeled (not sample-based), doesn’t sound great, but it loads quickly and plays lag-free. If I came up with something worth keeping, I could always replace it with a nice sounding sampled piano like NI’s Akoustik Piano.

This is one of those songs that, because I’m writing it at the console, never comes out as a proper demo. I create the song in layers, first laying the foundation (piano, here), then adding on rhythm or melodic instruments in iterative passes.

After I sufficiently nail the foundation, I’ll start working the rhythm and melodic tracks in an improvisational manner. I usually need 4 or 5 takes before I collect a decent vocabulary of runs, notes, vamps, etc., to piece into a coherent part.

Then, it’s just a matter of iterating over all the tracks to tighten and further define the specifics of the performances.

I pounded out a few repetitions of the chords on the piano and then copied them across 4 minutes of time, so what we’re looking at is a chord structure that doesn’t really change for the length of the song. This could be really boring, or maybe I could get away with crafting different parts by changing up the instrumental arrangement in certain sections. I’m not so hot at improvising at the keyboard, so I decided to just work with what I had.

Next up, I plugged in my Epiphone Dot, direct, and ran it through Amplitube 2, American Tube Clean preset with some Spring Reverb dialed up. I worked on some melodic lines for the intro and got a good taste of what a solo section might sound like.

I’m a big fan of guitar wankery. When it comes to my own playing, I can’t wait to get to the solo, and I have to restrain myself from wedging a solo in every last song.

Coming to have a strong feel for the melodic guitar part so early in the process seemed to predetermine that the song would be split into two symmetrical parts, divided by an instrumental break in the middle. I don’t know why I made this decision, and it only seems like a conscious decision in hind sight. Regardless, it is now an inviolable boundary of the song. Everything must fit into the container as it has been defined.

When it came time to put some lyrics to paper, I had two blocks of lyrics that began to take shape iteratively as I improvised vocals over the piano parts.

The loss of days
Makes you want to be mine
Our love is urgent, now

It’s good to be our generation
Think how the wretches before us
Lost their minds

Time is the issue. Metaphorically in the sense of it slipping away, and literally in the sense that now is always the latest point in time.

It reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 short story The Last Question which is concerned with our perception of forever, the universe’s inexorable march toward maximum entropy, and the human preoccupation with reversing the process.

Asimov’s story is told as a series of vignettes, through the eyes of our distant descendants, each one more chronologically advanced than the last. They ask the same questions and struggle with the same inevitabilities, despite the ever expanding scope of their computational powers.

Excerpt from The Last Question:

It was a nice feeling to have a Microvac of your own and Jerrodd was glad he was part of his generation and no other. In his father’s youth, the only computers had been tremendous machines taking up a hundred square miles of land. There was only one to a planet. Planetary ACs they were called. They had been growing in size steadily for a thousand years and then, all at once, came refinement. In place of transistors had come molecular valves so that even the largest Planetary AC could be put into a space only half the volume of a spaceship.

…and, a few paragraphs later…

“So many stars, so many planets,” sighed Jerrodine, busy with her own thoughts. “I suppose families will be going out to new planets forever, the way we are now.”

“Not forever,” said Jerrodd, with a smile. “It will all stop someday, but not for billions of years. Many billions. Even the stars run down, you know. Entropy must increase.”

I continued writing lyrics, and as I laid pen to paper (and voice to mic), my focus became ever more narrow, zeroing in on a more literal interpretation of the story. My creative process had been hijacked! A viral infection, I say!

The result is I’m unhappy with the song after the instrumental break — the entire second half seems mediocre. I think the lyrics are far too literal and artless. I need to re-write them.

I could be one of those people
Living my life for a moment
Out of time

The loss of days
Makes you want to be mine
Our love is urgent, now

It’s good to be our generation
Think how the wretches before us
Lost their minds

Souls were never
Meant to be frozen in time
They have all expired, now

We wish that they were around
But now they’re gone
And that is such a shame

I guess I’m one of those people
Never did think that we’d run out
Of our time

Forever’s not
The sort of word to be kind
We’re all convergent, now

Don’t be afraid when the end comes
Entropy’s fated to claim us
In good time

Mother Nature’s not the sort
To be kind
Our love’s emergent, now

We wish we could be around
To watch us fall
And it would be OK

I tracked a first pass at the lead and background vocals after the lyrics were written. I didn’t want to do too much processing at this point because I felt the lyrics may change and my vocal performances are usually the last part to be set in stone. I double tracked the lead and background vocals with some delay on the second tracks of both, to enhance the feel during subsequent performances.

Next up, drums. I used the Toontrack Vintage kit, which is my favorite default for working out a drum part. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll try out some of the Addictive Drums Vintage presets before all is said and done. I laid a kick and snare in one take and then some high-hats in a second take, which, you’ll notice, lose the time on several occasions. I must’ve been a fur piece into a bottle of dark, red wine at this point, and the darker the better — the buzz, not the performance. =)

I plugged my Rickenbacker 4001 bass (the one in my blog logo) directly into the Firewire 410, and ran it through the Amplitude Ampeg bass amp sim, don’t remember which amp at the moment. I was able to mostly define the notes I want to play, but I’ll have to wait until my next pass at the drums to tighten up the groove here. I’m not quite catching that kick a lot of the time and I don’t know if it’s the kick’s fault or the bass.

A good idea at this point might have been to tighten the drums and bass, but I lost interest in the fundamental rhythm tracks momentarily, and moved on, adding some more melodic flavors. I wanted the retro-futuristic, warm sounds of an analog synth.

One of my goals for this album is to spin tales that seem, on the surface, far removed from the concerns of our daily existence, but that are rooted, however obliquely, to some relatable emotional truth. The things that we’ll never leave behind, no matter how far we stray from our biological bootstraps.

I was looking for sounds that are synthetic imitations of the organic, and I had two previous synth touchstones in mind.

Eons of synth coronet carved these dunes

Eons of synth coronet carved these dunes

1) The delay-drenched synth coronets (originally an ARP, I believe) from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. I had always imagined the back cover of that album, with the invisible man in the desert, as the backdrop for the beginning of Shine On. The coronets sound of the wind, shaping the dunes on a geological timescale, condensing the eons, bringing us to the point where the narrative begins.

I found mine in Arturia’s Moog Modular V VSTi.

Life forms are full of noxious gasses

Life forms are full of noxious gasses

2) I really liked the tactile quality of the soupy, gurgling, aquatic synth sounds throughout Ween’s album, The Mollusk, particularly the flatulence of The Golden Eel. A gutteral burp, signifying life.

I didn’t quite find the same sound. I latched onto a hivey buzz kind of sound with a bit of the lower gurgling I was looking for. I found it in the z3ta+ synth that comes with Sonar 8.

Next steps: Finalize the second-half lyrics. Tighten the groove. Re-record the vocals.

I’m gonna skip the track-by-track breakdown, unless anyone finds that particularly useful or interesting.

Estimated Song Completion: 60%


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Song: The Engineer

April 14, 2009

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The Engineer Demo (2009) [Download]

The seeds for this song, and the entire album, were planted almost a year ago. My experimentation at the time was tending toward dense, heavily electronic and synthesized music. I was writing most of my songs at the console, piece-by-piece inside of Cakewalk Sonar, and starting to feel tapped out creatively. The music was missing something. It all just felt so…cold and synthetic…and though that fit the nature of the lyrics I was writing, I didn’t find it all that interesting to listen to.

It was time for a change in direction. Time to strip it down and get back to what I knew best, using the guitar as my primary songwriting tool.

I’d restrung my acoustic 6-string after a long period of disuse and started strumming the open strings. There’s something about the drone of an open E-string that I’ve always loved. A hypnotic quality that I adore despite the repetitive nature inherent in a droning sound. Something organic, like a pulse.

Fooling around with open strings and some arpeggios in 6/8 time (I think), I came up with 3 different parts that felt like they fit together nicely. The first trickle of lyrics and melody flowed quickly and easily soon afterward.

The Engineer Demo – Deconstructed (2009) [Download]

She was made of polymers
She came along and broke my heart

Her icicle stare turned my blood cold
It tore me apart

Just let me have a crack at it
Oh, let me into your skull

A silly proposition;
That emotions come from the heart

She’s a fountain of life
Sprung from the minds of men
She’s a real work of art
She belongs in a museum

(Round Two. Fight!)

It’s a barometer of our relationship, girl
That we should contantly cuss and fight
For the world

Knowing is half of the battle, like GI Joe says
Let’s get together and conquer the world
Instead

Songs usually start out as music for me. Rarely with a melody, more often with the chords, the rhythm, and the changes, and almost never with the lyrics. After I get a skeleton of the song, I’ll start working on a melody and lyrics, filling in the blanks with nonsense words and whatever stream-of-consciousness profanities might dribble out.

Sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth fitting words to music. This one was different. The words came easy. I can’t say that I understood them, but that seems the case with almost everything I write. It starts with instinct, and flows with feeling. To realize any sort of meaning, that must wait until I go back and edit With Intent.

I had already been in a sci-fi headspace, slinging robots and spaceships like a bad episode of The Outer Limits. At first blush, this song seemed to be exploring a similar space.

I put the song down, incomplete, and wrote more music over the next 6 – 8 months.

Now, with some distance, I can see how this one song marked a definite change in direction for me, both musically and lyrically. All of the songs that were to follow seem to have grown naturally from this single starting point.

The Engineer – as I came to call it – was cut from a different cloth than the songs before it, though it shared certain thematic elements with those dense and tedious sci-fi expeditions I’d been lost on. The music had an earthier, folky quality and the lyrics, while still rooted in some far-off future, conveyed a very distinct humanistic perspective that had been missing.

I’d rather not over-explain any particular meaning or concept behind a song because a) it just sounds pretentious and b) it undermines any potential emotional connection I might have with the song. I find it dangerous to know too much about the song when I haven’t yet finished the lyrics. Things may just get a bit too literal, as they have for another song I’m nursing and will write about soon.

The important thing for me to take away is that The Engineer is the prototype for the album, Transhuman Highway.

Next steps are to finalize the structure of the song and finish the lyrics. After that I will find an acceptable metronomic drum beat and start tracking the guitar parts.

Session Notes

Since this is just a demo, there’s nothing particularly exciting going on here. The chorus vocals get a little bit pitchy, but I’m OK with that right now. Let it serve as a lesson that you must know precisely which notes you’re trying to sing before the noise leaves your throat. This sounds like common sense, but I struggle with it daily.

I recorded 2 tracks live, one each for the vocals and guitar, so there will be some bleed-through on the mics. Most of the time I prefer this as long as the signals are kept in-phase. The vibe on the vocals is usually much better for me if I can play my main instrument while I’m singing. My time-keeping sometimes suffers, though, so it’s a tradeoff and really depends on the song.

The microphones were run directly into a Firewire 410 audio interface. No compression or any effects were applied beyond a low-shelf EQ on the vocals to roll-off some boom from the low-end.

  • Track 1: Rhythm Guitar – Tacoma 6-String Acoustic via M-Audio Aries condenser mic – panned 35% left
  • Track 2: Vocals via Audio Technica AT4040 Cardioid Condenser mic – panned 5% right
  • Track 3: Guitar Fills (overdub) – Tacoma 6-String Acoustic via M-Audio Aries condenser mic – panned 35% right

The Deconstruction track was recorded with the same setup, except I used my girlfriend’s Little Martin LXM for the guitar track. It’s a fine instrument made for cute little girl hands. I like to strum around on it when I’m sitting on the couch or out on the front porch. This will be used frequently for quick and dirty demos, I predict.


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