As a songwriter, there’s nothing more important than being original, right?
Otherwise, you’d just be derivative. And what could be worse than being derivative?
The truth is that all great music is derivative, if that means “somehow derived from other music”.
If you set out to be totally original in everything you do, you’ll end up closing your ears and eyes to all of the resources you have to improve as a songwriter.
And, ironically, you’ll probably end up writing music that is either very derivative (in a bad way) or relatively boring.
Pure originality is a myth
There is a pervasive narrative that great artists (whether writers, painters, or musicians) are special geniuses who create amazing work from nothing.
I’m not sure why this narrative persists, since it runs counter to everything we actually know about artists and the arts.
Read a good biography of any artist, and you’ll most likely learn about their influences, their mentors, the communities in which they worked out new ideas, and the painstaking processes they developed in order to consistently produce art.
And of course, you’ll probably learn about the art movements that they were a part of.
What becomes very clear is that their work didn’t and doesn’t exist in isolation, in some realm of pure originality. They drew their ideas from artists who came before them, from their contemporaries and communities, as well as from their unique life experiences.
Whatever originality is, it can’t be creation from nothing.
Music is based on expectations
Music is a temporal art form. That is, a song flows over time, with a beginning, middle, and end.
As we listen, we anticipate the next note, the next chord, the next section. We wait for our favorite parts and we react with surprise at certain key moments.
The experience of a song can’t be separated from the expectations of the audience. And those expectations don’t come out of nowhere.
They are not created anew for every song we hear.
Conventions are part of the language of music
Although the mathematical and physical relationships between notes and chords play some role, these expectations are largely based in conventions. And conventions are tied to traditions and styles.
Think of conventions as part of the language of music. They help a song make sense to listeners and they set up opportunities for surprise. Interesting parts of a song are often those parts that go against our expectations.
Great music plays on conventions.
To make this point, we could analyze a number of great songs in detail, telling a theoretical story about what they have in common. But there’s a shortcut to demonstrating this.
If you can determine what style a song is in, you’ve already shown that it’s not purely original.
We recognize a song as being in a style because of the conventions it follows. Those could be common chord changes, instrumentation choices, song structure, melodic shapes, singing styles, and so on.
And in case you’re thinking “but there must have been a first song in that style”, I submit that any first song in a style has predecessors that sit somewhere between that style and another.
Striving to be original can be counterproductive
If original means “something completely new”, don’t try to be original! Not only is this a mostly impossible goal, but an obsessive focus on originality is also likely to backfire.
When you start writing a song, you might try out certain chord changes or melodic ideas and think “that’s pretty interesting”. And if something sounds interesting, you might assume it must be new.
But this isn’t a good assumption.
In fact, what sounds interesting may have been done many times before. That little part might subconsciously remind you of one of your favorite songs, or of a trick that is often used to create surprise.
Since you’ve heard it in parts you liked in so many songs, you’ve developed an association between that sound and “interesting”.
Some common “interesting” ideas
Let’s look at two common examples. First, consider the “deceptive cadence”, where you set up a song so that an audience expects a certain kind of resolution (V - I) and then you deliver a different one (e.g. V - vi).
You can easily discover this on your own by playing around at the guitar. Say you’ve been playing G major to C major, and then at a certain point you try G major to A minor.
This can sound great, but it’s definitely not original.
Second, consider borrowing the iv chord.
This can sound pretty interesting, and will often sound like a “meaningful moment” in a song. But borrowing the iv (which is what this is) has been a common trick since at least the 60s.
I’m not saying you should avoid these chord changes. They can work well! Instead, I’m illustrating that if you don’t know much about conventions, you might not really know what is “original” or not.
If you think originality is the most important thing, you might be hesitant to learn about conventions. This means that, ironically, focusing too much on originality can lead you to be less original!
Trying to be original can lead you to write boring songs
Let’s imagine a scale of originality.
The least original song is one that is a note-for-note copy of an existing song that already sounds just like a bunch of other songs. That’s just stealing, and in this case stealing something mediocre.
On the other extreme is a song that has nothing in common with any other song ever written. I can’t even imagine what that would be, but I know it would either sound very noisy or very boring, or both.
Good songwriting obviously takes place somewhere between these extremes. The truth is it’s a lot closer to the completely unoriginal song.
Now, if you basically just copy existing music, your songs will be boring, if for no other reason than people would prefer to hear the originals. I think everyone knows that.
But being too original can also lead to boring songs!
My experiments with structure
Let’s use structure as an example. I went through a phase where I wanted to write songs that never repeated a section, which is quite unusual in popular music (though Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney have both played around with this idea, for two famous examples).
So I’d write a song with 6 or 7 distinct sections, one after the other. Each section would have a completely new melody and chord progression.
I quickly learned something. Without any repetition at all, the songs seemed to meander endlessly, even if the lyrics developed a single story.
But sticking in just one part that repeated (even if it was only at the very beginning and very end) seemed to really bring everything together. And that repeating part sounded very catchy when it returned.
There’s no harm in playing around with structure. Experimentation is a great idea. But if I had stayed too focused on “originality”, I might have refused to even try out the repeating parts.
And in the end, that would have made for songs that I would have found more boring.
This point holds even more for trying to create chord progressions that are “totally original”. If you could succeed, I’m guessing that the result would sound aimless or grating.
Definitely give it a try, but also be ready to learn some valuable lessons about originality.
A better way to be original
It might sound like I’m telling you not to be original. But I’m really just trying to get you to rethink originality.
I’m a big proponent of experimentation, and I love music that effectively pushes the boundaries of our expectations. However, there are better ways to write original songs than making that your goal.
Learn the conventions
You’ve probably heard advice along these lines before: “You have to learn the rules before you can break them.” In a way, you already know enough about the rules to be able to break them. That’s because you’ve been developing an ear for music ever since you heard your first song.
But I think it’s less about learning the “rules” than it is about conventions. You don’t need to learn music theory to be able to consciously subvert expectations.
Develop a songwriting practice
Instead of thinking about being original, it’s more useful to think about building your vocabulary, deepening your ear for music, and developing your voice.
In the process, you will work out your own songwriting process and build a backlog of musical ideas.
All of these together will help you write more original music. More importantly, they will help you write music that is uniquely yours.
You can follow those links for deeper dives into some of these ideas, but for now, let’s look at a few of the core strategies for getting there.
Some core strategies for creating original music
First of all, write music on a regular basis. Don’t wait for inspiration to strike, and don’t view “success” as “writing an original song”.
Building habits provides a foundation that will help you continuously improve. And they also make it easier to sit down to write.
You can’t write original songs if you never write anything!
Second, learn other songs. Many people, including a past version of myself, have fallen for the idea that spending too much time learning and playing other people’s songs will make it harder to be original.
This is really the opposite of the truth.
The greater the variety of the songs you learn and study, the larger your musical vocabulary will become. And the larger your vocabulary, the more you’ll be able to recognize interesting ideas.
Third, regularly break your songwriting habits.
I recommend doing this one aspect at a time. If you tend to write songs in a couple of keys, try a new one (using a capo is an easy way to do this on the guitar). If you write verses with 2 chords, write one with 4. If your melodies normally start on the strong beat, try letting the music breathe a little more.
There are endless ways to break out of your habits (check out this cheat sheet for some more ideas).
Originality should be an effect, not a cause
Being original is not the most effective goal for a songwriter. It can be counterproductive, and it can lead you to write songs even you find boring.
Think of originality as something that naturally emerges out of learning music, learning about music, and developing a songwriting practice.
If you write music on a regular basis, pay attention to what makes songs stand out, learn new techniques, and experiment with new ideas, you will gradually develop both your ears and your voice.
And then originality will just be one of many benefits that flow from your practice.