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What do you do to keep your music original? Is there such a thing as "original" songs?

William A. Krogh Jr.
A songwriter at Syracuse University, writes:
Yes there are original songs. I tend to try and encorporate my own little quirks and personality flaws. It personalizes them and makes them different from everyone else.
Sherman Dorn
Another bearded fan of Urban Tapestry, (Uh...sure, Sherm... *g* --Jodi) writes:
I write to get a desired reaction from an audience of one. Sometimes that's just pleasing myself. Sometimes it's seeing a look on a friend's face. Sometimes it's a reaction from a theoretical audience. But the implied audience means I want to get a reaction -- not a nod of recognition. That's just plain too dull for me. I'd rather take a rotten tomato in the face before I'd want people dozing to my music. Of course, I don't write for money, so I don't depend on this to eat. (Otherwise, I'd much rather people throw good tomatoes I can cook up the next day. Of course, this explains Debbie Ohi's success, as thrown chocolate is about as good as chocolate squares in a box; and even better if one likes break-up.)
Teri Scheinzeit
A singer songwriter from New York City, writes:
I write about what I know. And try to make it conversational. No one else looks at the world the way I do. I just try to get it down. Without censoring.
Michael Reed
A young man with an incredible talent (And ego, eh Mike? *g* --Jodi), writes:
I believe that music comes straight from the heart, and no matter what it sounds like, it is from a person's heart. That is what original music is to me. Whether I produce a slow song, or rock song, it comes from inside of me, and reflects on my life. That is originality.
Sham Junkin
A young rising songwriter from Woodstock, Ontario, writes:
I'd like to think that there is some sort of "original" songwriting, but, I fear that I'd be wrong. To some of us, our songs come from our hearts, making them original, to a degree. To keep my music "original" I try not listen to what has been released lately. I'm afraid what I hear will stick in my head, and I'll end up writing a song that sounds dreadfully like the latest tune!!! If you can shield yourself from "the latest" and write from your own soul, then yes, music can be truly "original".
Don Neill
Yet another singer-songwriter-guitar-player (anybody got a dime?)from NY, New York, writes:
Short answer: I don't worry about whether it's original. Long answer: I'm a cantankerous, selfish songwriter. I do this because I have to! If one of my creations sparks a new way of looking at things, all the better. Another point to consider: one can learn a lot from emulation, as long as you don't fool yourself about what you are doing.
W. Scott Snyder
The Midwestern member of "Fellowship", writes:
I don't know about "original" - I mean, I don't want to plagerize another song, certainly, but, I'm more interested in making it somehow different in some way (perhaps a small way) from the other songs I have written. I keep a close eye on keeping myself fresh that way. As far as whether or not there is an original song - I suspect that would have to do with how your define "original song" - there are only 12 notes in the well-tempered scale, so there's only so much you can do, musically - to me it's the organization of the notes with the music that makes a song "original" or not. As an example - there are tons of I-IV-V tunes out there, but I wouldn't say they were all the same tune. The borders of originality become very fine, very subtle indeed when it comes to music. So, I suppose, to answer the question (finally!) - I try to look at my subject matter in a different perspective than I had before, or from the way I have heard other people approach it. Sometimes I choose what I think is original subject matter, although that could be a debatable question as well. As a songwriter I try to put my stamp, my fingerprint on my songs, so that they have some unique part of me in them, which goes a long way to making them "original".
Peggy Bertsch
Another one of those sensitive singer/songwriters from Nashville, TN, writes:
I know that I can never fully forget my songwriting heroes when I write, and I'm sure there is a piece of them in every song I've written, but not because I copied them. I think they've just shaped me into the writer I am. So I try to be true to who I am, and I try not to fear that ongoing evolutionary process. With any luck, the songs will keep evolving with me.
Reni Kreitzberg
A songwriter in Chico, California, writes:
The most important thing to keeping your material original is to keep living and keep looking and listening, there's a song hook everywhere! Yes, just as every person is original, songs can be an interpretation of an event, an occasion, and everyone has a unique viewpoint, thusly originality. Original songs disappear when you are trying to write someone else's songs. You can only write YOUR songs, and if you find a commonality of feelings, others will identify, and appreciate, your unique approach to a way they too have felt.
Dean Varton
A piano player/songwriter from Michigan, writes:
I prefer to keep my music simple. I use a variety of sounds and rhythms. This comes easy because of the extensive music studio I have. I write mostly for my own enjoyment, so I rarely ask others for their opinions. Once in a while someone will hear my songs and tell me they do sound as though they are from one composer.
Suzanne Harris
A songwriter from Kentucky, NSAI coordinator, writes:
When you're looking for an idea, make sure the story is believable. Prove one great thing in a song. Write for yourself, people feel what you feel.
An attorney/recreational songwriter from New York City, writes:
I've been writing songs for about 4 years. My take on originality in songwriting is probably different than most. Mostly evident in the fact that I can't play a single artist's song. From the moment I picked up the guitar I tried to create, never copy. Of course influences are reflected in the songs, but for the most part I've approached the task on my own, without any preconceived notions of what a song should be. Its worked fairly well so far.
Slade Wentworth
Guitars played, songs written and re-written, wars fought, assasinations plotted, from Auburn NY, writes:
There are an infinite combination of chords and progressions as there are dimensions to feellings, moods, and passions. Though we dutifully give a nod to those who have inspired us, there definitely are such a things asoriginal songs. When you hone in on one that hits the sweet spot, oh yeah; that's what life is all about.
D. B.
A songwriter from North Carolina, writes:
I used to be really worried about my songs sounding like somebody else. That was one of the things that was shaking my confidence as a songwriter. Then I figured out one of the things I needed to sound original: more confidence! So, I quit worrying about it. Of course I still have plenty of uphill battles, but I just accept the fact that while I'm trying to find my own voice I'll be doing some impersonating. It helps me to both imitate and experiment when I'm writing.
Weston O'Dell
A new aspiring songwriter and artist from Knoxville, TN, writes:
I think that a person's song must come from his/her heart. Most everything has been said at one time or another. A good songwriter must take what has already been said and say it a different way. That is original.
Lee Elliott
A non-stop popster living in Austin. Still going..., writes:
What one thinks, believes or knows is seldom original and not always the best place to write from. But what one truely feels is always original. In 1995 there were over 60,000 new songs commercially released in the U.S. If songs are like snowflakes, it would be easy to say that no two are exactly alike, and there may be some truth to that. But it's the songs that are the expressions of someones truest feelings (critics and publishers be damned) that will always stand out as being original. It won't matter that it's another 3-chord verse-chorus love song or a through-composed epic set to a 19 note tuning. It's not the thought that counts. It's the feeling. So what do I do? I try not to think about it...
Kacy Belew
A struggling songwriter from Alabama, writes:
There is such a thing as "original" songs. I try to keep as far away as i can from any type of inspirational music before I write. It always turns out like the song that I had just listened to. It's good to stay totally away from any music, but I like to write in relatively loud places. Like coffee shops, malls, parks, etc. Sometimes I hear a conversation that sparks my imagination.
James Sevigny
A singer/songwriter/escape artist in South Florida, writes:
I am not concerned with originality. It is passe.
Mikel Gore
An amature songwriter born in Missouri grew up everywhere else La Va Fla ECT, writes:
I always try to see the story behind the story, If I'm hurt in love then why? what happened next. If I write about the story it's the same as a thousand. If I write a story that involves the making middle and result, conveying emotion then I stand a chance of being original. Yes some songs are about things that have never been said in lyric before. Rudolf the red nosed reindeer was one. And new ones come along now and then.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Addicted to Godiva, writes:
I play it for my discerning friends. If too many of them say, "Hey, didn't I hear that on the radio this morning?" or their attention starts wandering, I toss the song and start from scratch again. And eat lots of chocolate.
Lynn Gold
SF Bay Area-based songwriter, filker, tech writer, radio personality, and net.fogey, writes:
YES, there's such a thing as an "original" song. Each different combination of notes and rhythms is an "original song." Some folks, such as Baha'is, feel you "discover" a new tune or combination of notes and rhythms rather than "write" it. I avoid listening to other people's music when I'm trying to write a song because too often I'll wind up writing someone else's song if I do. Once I've come up with something, if I think it reminds me of another song, I'll try to get a copy of that song and listen to it to make absolutely sure my song differs from it. The next step involves playing the song for other people. On one extreme, it's much better to have a good friend tell you you've just rewritten "Great Balls of Fire" than Chuck Berry's lawyers. More realistically, it's much less embarassing when your close friend tells you you've just rewritten "Amazing Grace" than some stranger in a coffeehouse.
Dennis Jozefowicz
A techno-pop/dance artist, writes:
When all else fails, I use a computerized randomization routine on digital samples and sequencers until something is basically appealing to me, then I build on it.
Lionel L. Dumond
A songwriter/musician/producer from Portland, Maine, writes:
Well, this is an interesting question. Music (especially so-called "popular" music) is so rife with musical cliches, stock chord progressions, and the like that it's sometimes difficult to come up with something totally fresh and different. In fact, it's often taught in business classes that the the average consumer is likely to initially reject anything that is radically different from that with which he or she is already familiar. I think, to a large extent, this is true of music as well -- and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It's important to keep in mind that there are certain traditional musical idioms that are so deeply embedded in modern Western culture that they are simply not going to go away. A good example is the tonic-dominant relationship in familiar chord progressions. I know a lot of songwriters that fight against these so-called "limitations"; however, they need to realize that there are still literally millions of original ideas that have yet to be born of the familiar I-IV-V and the ii-V and the traditional cadences everyone already knows. That is the musical "language" the average listener "understands" on a deeply subconcious level, and so that is the language a successful songwriter must speak. This makes true "originality" that much harder to achieve!

As far as lyrical content is concerned, I find a good way to maintain one's "originality" is to really open up and write about the way YOU feel, YOUR thoughts, YOUR take on things. It's hard sometimes to really open up with your own feelings, but remember that no-one sees things exactly the way you do. If you can convey that in your work, then it's got to be original! Say what's in YOU -- I mean, isn't that why you're writing songs in the first place? It should be! If you are writing songs in order to communicate someone else's feelings instead of your own, find another line of work...
Ed. Note: A very inspiration and well thought-out answer, Lionel. Thanks! --Jodi

David Goulden
Part-time hermit and nylon-toque-wearin' crack-up from the land of Rum and Big Fishes, writes:

Yeah there are original songs. They're usually created by two or more people who come from widely different musical/social/cultural backgrounds. The juxtaposition of those different styles can create awsomely different and emotional music.

Of course, just when your band has spent all that time and hard work creating these original masterpieces they start pissing each other off and the band BREAKS UP. So you start another band. And it BREAKS UP. But just like a bad relationship you keep making the same mistakes over again until you finally can't take it any more and you either become a mean-mother servant of god or a lap dog of Satan (ok, I stole that line from From Dusk til Dawn).

Personally I think we should all become sailors and save ourselves a crapload of misery. :)Ed Note: Hmmm... Gives new meaning to that Simpson's sketch... "I like the cut of his jib." and lapdogs are so much more fun than mean mothers. *sigh* --Jodi

Paul Rees
A songwriter by necessity, not profession ... northern CA, writes:
I hit random chords without knowing what they're going to be first. I take two very unrelated chords and try to make them work with each other. It's always a very anal, intentional approach, but when I find something new, I add it to my "licks". Everyone has a comfort zone, but the trick is to keep adding to what's comfortable.
Chris Kilpatrick
A songworker who is lost in indiana, writes:
For me, my songs have to hurt, not that they are painful to hear only, they must involve some emotion of my own. I wrote a song about a songwriter who ends up as a janitor; deaf and arthritic because I was diagnosed as prearthritic with a slight hearing loss. Maybe I contain my demons behind bar-chords, chained in progressions and ironies.
just a traveler on the lonely highway....:), writes:
Originality is rooted in the self -- and so is one's music. I think the best way to remain original in writing/composing is to be aware of your influences. If you know and understand the base you stand upon, you can then add your own unique flavor to it -- and THAT is true originality.
Dave Manning
A guy in Denver who likes to write, writes:
I think that songs are like colors. With colors there are the 3 primary colors. With those 3 colors as your foundation you can mix and create tints and hues of every color in the world. With a song you have a foundation and with a mixture of notes and words you'll create a tint or hue of the foundation. So no there is no such thing as an "original" song.
Vincent Todd Zorn
A singer/songwriter from Northern Californa Sierra, writes:
Don't be intimidated by what you hear on the radio. Dont let the "popular" songs of today influence your original song of tomorrow! Write...write.. write!!!!! Dont stop. Your personality, and your voice will be heard with the influences that possesed you to start expressing yourself through music. Keep on playing!!!
Ryan Snowdon
A guitar player from from small town Canada, writes:
I think you have make sure the lyrics are original to you, first and foremost. Don't keep writing about the same painful relationship over and over or the music along with the lyrics will become stale and boring to you and everyone else. I think it is also important to look at the natural surroundings you have and use those to make your songs as personal as possible to you and those who live around you. An example of this in me would be the St.La. River or the 1000 islands which I have known since I was born.
Greg Stamper
A student and a songwriter from the D.C. area, writes:
All songs grab elements of other songs and styles however, a song becomes original once the songwriter has put his or her own stamp on a song. One way I keep my music original is to stay away from the radio for long periods of time. While it's definitely good to know what's going on musically, it may be be to one's advantage to take time out to only listen to your own stuff. Later on I compare my music with what's happening on the radio. That's the true test of originality. It's also important to define your own sound. Think about it you can tell a Lennon/McCartney song just by the sound; that's what makes the music original and that is what we as songwriters should continuously strive to achieve. Take care my friends and continue to make music for the world!!!
Rick Antonoff
A lawyer in NYC who would rather be writing songs fulltime, writes:
I'm not always trying to be original, but when I am, I spend a lot of time changing the melody of a song until it sounds like nothing else I've heard. Moving in semitones rather than whole steps sometimes helps, moving from a major chord to a minor, 7th or some other augmentation helps, taking a section or phrase out of the song and playing it backwards works sometimes. Lyrics are a different story. Sometimes it seems there's only so much you can say about love but people seem to keep coming up with new angles. Newspaper human interest stories are fertile ground for original subjects. Thumbing through a dictionary is a good resource for ideas and simple words that may not have been used too often. Reading poetry can trigger new ways to say familiar things.
Charles Fish
An angst-ridden songwriter from the hometown of Bobby Knight, writes:
For me, songwriting is an emotional process. I write to resolve issues and share experiences. I ususally sit at my piano, not trying to come up with the secret chord or progression, mostly to find what music is trying to tell me. Each song is original, expressing even closely related ideas differently. I think that is true across the board. Most of us write because we just can't help it, and our individuality creates the originality. I let others interpret what a song is saying on their own, which adds more newness to the song.
Ikechi Nzotta
An aspiring musician from Victoria, BC, writes:
I don't believe there's such a thing as an "original song" because no matter how one tries, every song is influenced by other songs consciously or unconsciously. The only way I can keep my music original is to stop listening to other people's music (which I find impossible) Otherwise when I notice a similarity between a song I'm writing and another existing one, I try to make it vary with the existing one by making changes in the melody and in the structure of the song.
Chris Kilpatrick
Singing with the angels while waltzing with my demons, writes:
Look at the word "original", it's root is origin, you are the origin of your song. If it does sound original to you, that may be because there is none of you in it! What emotion does it evoke? What is the strongest example of that emotion? Use that example as part of your song, build on the emotion. The song I am writing now is about the things that make us nervous: The first kiss, getting married and dying. I tie dying lyrically to the first kiss to keep the theme like a circle. Strong pictures make strong songs, though they don't have to be as big as a movie screen, small and powerful works, too.
Stephen Taylor
A singer/songwriter from everywhere, currently in Hawaii but headed for the SE, writes:
Originality isn't as much in the song as it is in the singer. Music is basically a finite system (there are only so many audible notes, and therefore only so many combinations, rhythms, etc.). What makes a song "original" is the unique (and infinite) energy of the singer the writer.
Jennifer Zaghloul
An aspiring songwriter in Toronto, Canada who loves to share music with the world, writes:
I truly do believe that there is such a thing as "original" songs. I think in order for a song to be considered "original" it must have some element of uniqueness that clearly distinguished it from all the others. Whether it be a funky tune or an interesting image, an original song is one that hits you because it's not just "another sad love song"! I keep my musci original by always ensuring that there is an element of me within it.
Felicia Kyle
A self discovered songstress, writes:
I made up my first song before I went to school. I must have been five years old. I can't remember a life without music. If I loose sight of the simple, the reason any of us create, then I know it is time for me to refocus. I do this by listening to the sound of my guitar. I do this by meeting the eyes of my pups who lay at my feet when I play. I do this by remembering even Woody Guthrie had his critics and sometimes I do this by putting up my Fender and going for a walk. I believe in the magic of music and I know what touches me is the very thing we can't explain like why Elvis danced the way he did and then ended up ..well you know..not dancing. What I want to know is if God were one of us would he sing a Joan Osbourne song? (Ed.Note: heheh. Cute, Felicia. ;) That song is still one of my favourites though... simple and yet poignant. I admire that in a song. --Jodi)
David DeMent
A singer/songwriter from Texas, writes:
When the "writing bug" hits me, it is usually during an emotionally rich time in my life. Some songs are about my life and some are about Life. Sometimes I get stuck in a songwiting rut. All Chord changes and lyric patterns tend to go in the same cycles. When this happens, I just back away from the whole process. That may sound like an "un-writerly" thing to do but, I believe the old proverb which advises, "When your mind wanders, follow it." As for the second question: I can say yes and no. As I got older, I realized there were very few songwriters I knew who were writing the feelings I had; so I could do nothing else but write them myself. So, in that sense they are original. On the other hand, I have listened to and played so many different styles of music, I cannot say that any of my music is truly my own. It's like a friend told me when I confided that I felt guilty using the "Rhyming Dictionary" to write my songs and poetry. She told me not to feel guilty because the words are not original to me, but it was me who chose them.
Will Derryberry
A singer-songwriter from CA, writes:
Writing original music today is the combining of differant styles rather than one specific style or sound.Jazz, blues,folk, and classical music are the foundations in which original music of the latter century has been written.So when I write a song I may combine folk, jazz, and blues together. This has been done before, but it opens many more doors to writting somthing fresh than by saying, I'm gonna write a disco tune. Ya know what I mean? Nothing is "truly" original though. Our history doesn't have the record of the first song ever written. What really matters is that we have the power to provoke emotions and ideas that connect with people. That's something that never grows old or unoriginal.
Emily Shore
A songwriter/singer/guitarist from Massachusetts, writes:
Music=Emotion. My goal in writing songs is to move my audience (imaginary so far) and myself emotionally. I figure to some extent every topic's been lyricized and every chord progression used, but I still think songs that are beyond cliche, that make us laugh or cry must be oringal otherwise we'd be numb to the MAGIC!!
An informance artist from the great outdoors, writes:
I am a cultural recycler. I prey upon assumed contextual meanings from the world around me. The pieces are there for all to see, its the way we weave them that is original. The words and meanings are shared with all minds, therein lies their effectiveness. Everything is evolving, therefor everything is deriving from something else. Each new reinteration holds uniqueness, but sometimes something entirely unexpected and fresh shows up. Songs flow out when you open the channel. You take what the Muse hands you. Each is a gift, from the Original Source.
Zack Hill
Co-songwriter from New Hampshire, Lead Guitar/Vocals for Xylott's Pigg, writes:
I do what many other songwriters do-get ideas from everywhere and get inspiration from other groups. I mean, find topics say, on TV, based on things you like to hear in the music you listen to and shape it with the same style but with your own music and lyrics. There are original lyrics, but most groups try to "be like" other groups, so in that way, the music is much alike.
Elisa M Welch
A no-longer young but not yet old Singer/Songwriter Multi-instrumentalist. And a damed good one!, writes:
Things come to me, either a little lyrical or nonsense-syllable phrase or a melodic bit or chord progression on whichever instrument I'm scrommeling with at the moment. I noodle with the idea, then decide whether I've heard the thing somewhere before or not. If not, I might proceed. If so, I might either proceed with caution or chuck the idea and start over, or go play in the garden or something. A lot of my "original" music is rather derivative, I suppose, of Celtic music. But I think if we took out our magnifying glasses and studied really hard, we'd find that most modern "original" music is derivative of something that came before. I don't think that's a bad thing. Actually, I get a little tired of Western society's insatiable craving for something "new," the fresh new sound, the flavor of the week as it were. And I get particularly perturbed when someone is praised for being "original" when in fact their melodies and/or lyrics were clearly lifted from past sources. I guess I get peeved that the average listener can be so clueless about what came before, and fails to appreciate the "original" original, if you catch my drift. What, me, gripey? :)
Rusty Ford
A Lyricist/Song/Jinglewriter ex:UK, Cape Town, writes:
I guess the real definition of an original song would be somewthing that sounds like nothing being played on the radio, now or in the last 50 years. Also the title would have to be unique. Pretty difficult order, and incidentally impossible to sell to a publisher or record company A&R person. After banging my head against Nashville doors for years, I realised that the least important criterion of whether a song is good or not is the approval of the current music industry. Basically they want something just like whatever is in the No1 slot this week - not exactly a spur for originality, is it?

We songwriters today have to be aware of the dangers of this 'tunnel vision' being unspokenly applied by the record companies, the radio stations, and record stores.

I've written and recorded (home studio) 67 songs in the last four years. I have another 39 complete lyrics I haven't had time to write tunes for. I was fortunate enough to co-write a million seller in Europe, as well as cutting a group album in London in the 60s and a solo album in the 80s. MY RULES:
* Always keep your antenna up -- the songs are out there, floating around just above your head.
* Avoid the common 'pool' of experience for ideas - this is where amateur songwriters go first.
* Use your imagination - don't be confined to what you've done or what you know. Think of a song as a movie! It should have a great, catchy, memorable title, and then unfold an original sequence of events/thoughts.
* Write the complete lyric first- anyway it works for me!Must be because I paid the rent for 20 years as an ad agency copywriter.The golden rule there is: when you've written the headline, you've spent 70 cents of your dollar. Make it a good one!

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