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How to be careful NOT to copy a theme? (composition)

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#1 filmmusic

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 12:32 PM

Hello all.
I'm mostly addressing to composers here..
One thing that is a bit of a constant fear and agony that I have is this:
when I come up with a theme, a specific melody, I don't know if it is something I've heard before and unconsciously stuck into my mind without knowing.
that's why most of the times I make an error probably, by trying to build difficult melodies with skips and generally very active, so that the chances of this combination of notes to have been thought by someone else too, are a lot less..

but when i want to build a simple melody?
How do you know if that that you wrote, hasn't been written again?
I'm not talking for the gereral background and orchestration of a piece, but a very specific combination of notes that comprise the melody along with its harmony.

one funny story is this (maybe I have told it again):
Years ago, i wrote a little song tune for a kid's play (it wasn't done eventually).
one year later, Pearl Harbor is released, and when i heard a theme from Zimmer's soundtrack I realised to my BIG astonishement that it was EXACTLY the same with mine (except for a note)!!!!
of course noone would say that Zimmer copied me! :lick:

But if it was the other way around?
If I had heard the Zimmer theme, forgot it in the back of my mind and then composed a theme that was the same more or less and didn't realise it?
Even if you have listened to lots of soudntracks, you can't remember all the hundreds of themes (except the obvious ones)..
May the Fourth be with us and A NEW HOPE for the original trilogy on Bluray!

#2 Luke Skywalker

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 12:35 PM

heck, horner gets much praise with his music, dont be afraid :P


i know what you mean, when you hear something in a score that resembles a passage or thematic material from another score/work from another composer. that you instantly jump and say 'this sounds like this'.

I hope Episode III is Called 'Revenge of the Sith'

#3 Stefancos

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 12:58 PM

A theme I came up with in 1994 turned up in Nixon a few years later.

Another one, a rather heroic theme I came up with in the early 200's is very close the the opening theme in the Prologue from John Debney's Lair.

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#4 TheUlyssesian

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 01:01 PM

If its very very obvious, then someone will point out the similarity. If someone does claim your theme is rip-off, you can respectfully claim to have arrived at the theme of your own accord and say "you got it first so you win" and back off. Themes are like patents. I really do believe it is possible for two people to arrive at exactly the same melody. Because a melody being same is a matter of probability right, we are talking a large but finite no. of combinations and there are certain widely accepted and established patterns and templates. So its okay I guess if you arrive at the same or similar melody from earlier on. Just pass it through in front of knowledgeable people who might be able to point out any intended plagiarism.

I happened to me in the case of a book once! I imagined this synopsis for a story or a book, and have it in my mind for years. Randomly watch a French film I have never seen before and the plot is exactly the same. I am like, "Bummer!".

#5 Stefancos

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 01:04 PM

This is what happens to James Horner all the time. ;)

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#6 filmmusic

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 01:56 PM

If its very very obvious, then someone will point out the similarity. If someone does claim your theme is rip-off, you can respectfully claim to have arrived at the theme of your own accord and say "you got it first so you win" and back off. Themes are like patents. I really do believe it is possible for two people to arrive at exactly the same melody. Because a melody being same is a matter of probability right, we are talking a large but finite no. of combinations and there are certain widely accepted and established patterns and templates. So its okay I guess if you arrive at the same or similar melody from earlier on. Just pass it through in front of knowledgeable people who might be able to point out any intended plagiarism.

I happened to me in the case of a book once! I imagined this synopsis for a story or a book, and have it in my mind for years. Randomly watch a French film I have never seen before and the plot is exactly the same. I am like, "Bummer!".


my problem is not with the specific theme that is the same with pearl harbor.
I tossed that anyway, I'm not gonna use it anywhere.

my problem is with the themes I write from now on, if they resemble something that was written earlier than me..

@Stefan
well, yes, but when someone is famous enough maybe he's given some slack. (in spite of all the threads about Horner's plagiarism that are out there).
But if it is someone that is just startig like me, he won't..

for the record, here's the 2 themes I mentioned. ;)
same tempo, chords..
up is mine
down is Zimmer's
I wrote that in 1999-2000 when I was 20 years old..
(edit: oops, made a mistake. first bar is A minor in mine)

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May the Fourth be with us and A NEW HOPE for the original trilogy on Bluray!

#7 Richard Penna

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 02:03 PM

I think this happens rather a lot.

I came up with a theme in 2007 with an oriental twist. Took me a few days to realise that I'd re-written Zimmer's theme for Sao Feng from Pirates: AWE.

Also came up with a winter/snow inspired theme many years ago, then I watched the Simpsons scene where Smithers dreams about Burns flying in through the window... and there it was.

#8 Datameister

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 03:17 PM

Right or wrong, this is one of the big reasons why I don't compose as much as I'd theoretically like to. I get discouraged by the realization that this great melody I've come up with is actually quite close to something I've heard before. So if any of you have a good answer for this, I'd like to know, too.

#9 KK.

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 06:38 PM

Interesting topic, its happened to me a couple of times. A few years ago, I wrote a very simple love theme, then Super 8 came out last year, and its main theme was almost identical to mine. The 3 note phrases were pretty much what I built my own theme with. I couldn't help but laugh out loud when I first heard it...

I hate it when it happens, but hey, what can we do? :P

#10 filmmusic

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 07:50 PM

well, that's why I try to avoid writing simple themes but that's not the solution.
Sometimes beauty is in the simplest things..
May the Fourth be with us and A NEW HOPE for the original trilogy on Bluray!

#11 KK.

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 09:48 PM

Agreed, I usually try to avoid simple themes, but that doesn't mean I don't write them on occasion because sometimes they're quite effective in the purpose they serve.

#12 indy4

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Posted 09 April 2012 - 11:54 PM

I'm actually trying my hand at composing right now, and I've been having this same problem. Luckily I'm not trying to be a professional composer, so I do my best to avoid plagiarism but understand that not matter what, my works will be derivative.
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#13 Marcus

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 12:24 PM

This is an important question!
I think the key is to recognize the fact that music -all music- is a language, and when we employ it, we are in fact part-taking in something universal, something shared.
And just as with other languages, the more expansive vocabulary we have, the more
choices we have, the less likely we are to repeat something already written verbatim (or regurgitate something unconsciously). Of course,
when we're dealing with strictly diatonic music, and unless we aim for novelty through rather extreme means, such as bizarre rhythms, leaps
etc., chances are our ideas might cross paths with ideas not of our origin. Rather than opting for "false complexity" (contrived melodic construction etc.), I think we would often fare better by looking at the other tools at our disposal: harmony, rhythm, texture,
orchestration... There are so many ways we
could take something simple, something "already heard", and re-vitalize it, give it new meaning!
Given that this is a Williams forum after all, I will
offer a very recent case-in-point: the "Bonding
theme" from "War Horse"; here is a theme that intervallically, at least at its basis, has been heard thousands of times before: a rising and
falling arpeggio. But Williams treats this as a
given; that arpeggio is not the theme's sole "point". Rather, the organic, archaic simplicity and "knownness" of the melodic construct
becomes a metaphor for something timeless: the
ancient bond between man and animal, and is given, through Williams' signature harmonic contextualization, a warmth and, just as importantly, a "voice" (it becomes a typical "Williams" theme, rather than a generic rising and falling arpeggio figure). Of course, the rest
of the theme has its relative complexities, and I think there is a lesson to be learnt from this as well, and indeed from all of Williams' melodic creations: Too often, composers will get carried away writing a "soaring" melody, and while we
soar, we too easily fall prey to the undistilled (and often unconscious) sources of our own musical language, which is to say our own set of preferences, which is to say our own favoured selection of all music known to us, and all of a sudden, while we think we're flying on the wings of inspiration, we're on the brink of pure regurgitation...
Williams clearly has a very "constructivistic" attitide towards creating his themes: They are
sculpted and shaped very carefully, aiming to seem inevitable, but always retaining a sense of "otherness" as well; there's always a slight twist somewhere, regardless of how completely
natural they feel and flow. It could be melodic, or harmonic or rhythmic. In this sense, Williams is very much like Haydn: There is a lot of effort, a lot of labor, behind seeming simplicity.

And the lesson for all of us in this, is to be
vigilant about what we create; to try to resist becoming too infatuated with what our minds dish up initially; to see if we can improve upon the ideas that are readily (perhaps too readily) available to us, through all or some of the
means at our disposal. What we should strive for, then, is to constantly expand our vocabulary, and add to our arsenal of craft and experience, thus increasing our choices, and reducing the
risk of stagnation and involuntary aping!

#14 p0llux

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Posted 11 April 2012 - 11:52 PM

The short answer is: You don't know if it's been written already. You just gotta roll with it. I don't like being overly cautious like that because it greatly limits my creativity. I remember one time I had this great idea for an ending for a piece, but it turns out it sounded pretty much like the ending to the "Prologue" from Hook and with similar orchestration too. The bad news is: well it's been taken. The good news is: nice! I was able to come up with a similar idea that a master like JW also came up with.

#15 indy4

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 12:04 AM

Given that this is a Williams forum after all, I will
offer a very recent case-in-point: the "Bonding
theme" from "War Horse"; here is a theme that intervallically, at least at its basis, has been heard thousands of times before: a rising and
falling arpeggio. But Williams treats this as a
given; that arpeggio is not the theme's sole "point". Rather, the organic, archaic simplicity and "knownness" of the melodic construct
becomes a metaphor for something timeless: the
ancient bond between man and animal, and is given, through Williams' signature harmonic contextualization, a warmth and, just as importantly, a "voice" (it becomes a typical "Williams" theme, rather than a generic rising and falling arpeggio figure). Of course, the rest
of the theme has its relative complexities, and I think there is a lesson to be learnt from this as well, and indeed from all of Williams' melodic creations: Too often, composers will get carried away writing a "soaring" melody, and while we
soar, we too easily fall prey to the undistilled (and often unconscious) sources of our own musical language, which is to say our own set of preferences, which is to say our own favoured selection of all music known to us, and all of a sudden, while we think we're flying on the wings of inspiration, we're on the brink of pure regurgitation...
Williams clearly has a very "constructivistic" attitide towards creating his themes: They are
sculpted and shaped very carefully, aiming to seem inevitable, but always retaining a sense of "otherness" as well; there's always a slight twist somewhere, regardless of how completely
natural they feel and flow. It could be melodic, or harmonic or rhythmic. In this sense, Williams is very much like Haydn: There is a lot of effort, a lot of labor, behind seeming simplicity.

Thank you for this, Marcus. Beautifully put. :)
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#16 wanner251

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 02:35 AM

I think that if we do as Marcus is saying, which is put as much of ourselves into what we are doing, it won't really matter if it has been done before without our knowledge. The fact that we have labored over it so much says that it still sprang from ourselves.

Marcus, I don't think you could have been more spot-on!
-So much of what we do is ephemeral and quickly forgotten, even by ourselves, so it's gratifying to have something you have done linger in people's memories.

JW

#17 filmmusic

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Posted 12 April 2012 - 12:14 PM

Thank you very much Marcus for your input..

well, the problem is that when you're composing just for fun it's not that big deal..
but in this period I'm composing some demos for a film I might be scoring..
I found a theme that I'm very happy with it (after 2 weeks and after rejecting 10 other themes) and I see that it's very flexible and the whole score could be built around it..
It's not anything complex, just a plain dramatic theme.. But I spent days and days until I found it and said "this is it!".. something that sounds "inevitable" as you said..
But if this resembles anything else that has been written before.... :unsure: ... I wouldn't like that..
May the Fourth be with us and A NEW HOPE for the original trilogy on Bluray!

#18 hornist

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Posted 22 April 2012 - 05:10 PM

for the record, here's the 2 themes I mentioned. ;)
same tempo, chords..
up is mine
down is Zimmer's
I wrote that in 1999-2000 when I was 20 years old..
(edit: oops, made a mistake. first bar is A minor in mine)

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Hey, that is also Terra Nova Main Theme... ;)

#19 filmmusic

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Posted 23 April 2012 - 01:11 AM

OMG!!!!! You're right!! I just listened to it!! :eek:
May the Fourth be with us and A NEW HOPE for the original trilogy on Bluray!




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