Why It Is Okay to Copy Other Composers (Preferably Public Domain)
I am currently listening to the third movement of Mendelssohn’s 5th Symphony, “Reformation”. I have heard some people say that Mendelssohn lost his youthful edginess and his later music just doesn’t reflect the genius of his earlier pieces like the Octet or Midsummer Night’s Dream. To them I say, Poppycock!
This is a beautiful piece, and the entire symphony is worth a listen if you haven’t heard it before.
But something that struck me just now, especially on the third movement, is that this is not that ground breaking. The harmonies are straight forward. There is nothing that would stand out as instantly a leap forward in musical thought.
But that’s okay!
Standard Harmonic Progressions
One of the things that strikes me most is the use of very standard harmonic progressions. Lots of I-V-I, I-VI-III, and I-IV6-V kind of stuff. Even with these the music feels fresh. This no doubt is due to other factors as well, such as excellent counterpoint and orchestration, but it doesn’t change the fact that someone like Mendelssohn can take something simple and still use it for a Symphony. His 5th Symphony none the less.
I had written in the past, that if Beethoven was comfortable enough to have used I-V-I as a general progression in one of the last pieces he ever wrote, then I should be comfortable with it as well. But for some reason this is a problem for me. When I sit down to compose, my inner dialogue goes something like this –
Me: Okay, here we are again.
Me: Doo, doo doo dum dum, what should I compose today?
Me: I know, let’s compose something ground breaking. Something that’s never been heard before. That will really get everyone noticing me. I can have new harmonies that I’ve never heard before, make it atonal and tonal at the same time. And to top it off, it has to be written for 10 virtuosos all in the same room, or else it won’t do.
Me: Great idea Me! Let’s do it.
Me: …………. (time passes doodling)
Me: (30 minutes later) 2 bars of music, all in C major starting with an arpeggio… I guess we’ll break ground next time.
Before you call a psychiatrist for me, I will guess and say that you probably have similar experiences.
So what’s the problem. In my mind I see two.
1. First and foremost, I am putting too much pressure on myself to “perform”. More often than not, I have found when I take away any desire to compose with a certain unattainable goal in mind I get nowhere. But when I have a very attainable goal, usually something that involves less pressure, something great get’s composed. This is no more evident than when I have composed “examples” for this site. Looking at it as a simple “academic example” I usually just rattle off a simple sentence using I-V-I type basic progressions, and then I am surprised when I really like it.
2. Second, I am attempting to use harmonies and styles of writing that I have not mastered. When you try and get too fancy with your composing, you end up leaving the world of what you know, for the world of learning. This is okay, but in moderation. Learning, especially through your own composing, has to be done step by step, and overtime. The reason is, you have to truly integrate new things. If you are writing using familiar techniques, and then happen on a very unusual harmony or form, you are more likely to internalize it, than if you are struggling to move from chord to chord in the first place because of some strange desire to break free from the shackles of traditional harmonic thinking.
Getting back to my original point, one of the best things you can do is steal from the greats. And I mean straight up steal (Not steal an entire piece, because thats plagiarism. Besides, if I were to go in front of a group, play Beethoven’s 9th and call it Brantingham’s 1st, I think they would know). This takes much of the pressure of “originality” off of your shoulders, and puts it on the masters. Your concern is not originality, it is mastery.
Stealing is an art form in and of itself. Steal short bits from pieces that you really like, but then change things in them. You like a certain chord progression? Copy it, and use the same melody as a guide for how to write your melody. In the grand scheme, if you become a great, and scholars are dissecting your music in the future, they will look at it and say:
“Ah, clearly here, he was influenced by Jon Brantingham’s Piano Sonata No. 1…”
Stealing ideas from other composers is a means to an end. It will allow you to internalize things they know, and to make new connections among the things you know.
If you are rolling your eyes right now, I would like to enter into evidence, Exhibit A – Trio Sonata in G Major by Domenico Gallo, and Exhibit B – the Overture to Pulcinella by Stravinsky.
Exhibit A – Trio Sonata in G Major by Domenico Gallo
Exhibit B – The Overture to Pulcinella by Stravinsky
So don’t be afraid to steal once and a while. I think the world will be a better place for it.
Disclaimer: This can probably get me in a little hot water if taken out of context. I am not advocating plagiarism or actual theft of valuables, or really any theft of any kind beyond the use of ideas. Please do not actually steal, in the traditional sense of a crime. And really, don’t try to steal someones music and claim it as your own. But no one will get you if you use the chord progression from Pachabel’s Canon. See video below.