The Eight Note Dilemma

A songwriter recently asked me: Is it copyright infringement if I use eight notes of a hit song melody?

A: When you think about it, there are only 12 notes in an octave. And only a few of those sound good in a melody. So, really, any eight notes are going to be in plenty of songs. The trick is to make sure your eight notes don’t remind listeners of a song that isn’t yours.  If they do, that’s called “substantial similarity.”

Substantial similarity is one of the tests for copyright infringement. If your eight notes are in the same order and have the same melodic rhythm as a hit song then there’s likely to be too much similarity. And that’s not good.

The truth is there’s NO hard and fast rule that determines how many notes of someone else’s melody you can use in a song of your own. It may only take two or three notes if they feature a very recognizable interval jump or rhythm. But here are some ideas that can help you out. 

Chorus, verse, or bridge?
There’s a kind of pecking order here: Is your line similar to the hit song’s all-important hook line? Or does it sound like a line in the verse or bridge? There’s a difference.

Most listeners recognize and remember a song’s hook – often the first or last line of the chorus, or maybe even the whole chorus. This is the part of the song that a publisher or songwriter is likely to defend if you copy it. Eight notes of that and you’re asking for trouble.

On the other hand, if your melody line sounds like the third line of a verse section in a hit song, you might not need to worry so much. That line usually isn’t as memorable as the chorus. Listeners don’t fall in love with the song and buy it because that line is so awesome. So it’s not as valuable to the publisher and they’re not likely to come after you.

Copyright infringement is a good reason to avoid a melody that’s the same as a hit song.  But here’s another reason that I think is even more persuasive: Why would you want listeners thinking about a different song when they’re listening to yours? After all, that’s what happens when you write a similar melody. Everyone is reminded of that OTHER song.

So just change it
If your eight notes sound like the first eight notes of big hit song chorus, then just change the notes:

  • Hold a note longer and shorten others.
  • Change a few note pitches.
  • Eliminate a pause or add one somewhere in the middle.
  • Try starting your melody on a different beat or chord.

A good melody can handle a few changes and still be very effective. So make your melody an original and let your song proudly wave it’s own flag and not someone else’s. Chances are you’ll like your new melody even better.

Here are more ideas for rewriting your melody.

by Robin Frederick

Robin's books at Amazon.comThis post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

Reprints of this article by permission.

Author: Robin Frederick

Robin Frederick is the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. She has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and Executive Producer of 60 albums. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.

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