Q: “After I write a song, how do I make sure I’m not copying someone else’s melody? Sometimes I think I’ve heard it before but I’m not sure.”
A: That’s a good question! If the melody sounds familiar to you and it’s a nagging feeling that won’t go away, try playing it for friends to see if anyone recognizes it. That’s what Paul McCartney did with the melody of “Yesterday.” Since it came to him easily, he was suspicious that he might have been re-creating a melody he had heard before. He hadn’t written the lyric yet so he used the nonsense phrase “scrambled eggs” where he would later sing the word “yesterday.” No one recognized the melody, so he went ahead a wrote the final lyric.
If a melody “just comes to you,” if it seems to arrive full-blown, be cautious. It’s possibly one you’ve heard before and stored away in the back of your mind. Sing it for friends to see if they’ve heard it. Back when I was writing three to four songs a week for the Disney Channel, I used to ask the musicians at every recording session if they recognized any of the melodies! I was writing so quickly, I was always nervous that I had inadvertently used an existing melody. If they thought the melody sounded familiar, I changed it on the spot.
The good news is that melodies are easy to change. Try varying the pitches of a few notes, especially in the song’s chorus. Go up instead of down, down instead of up. Skip over a few notes instead of using a series of rising or descending pitches. You can also play with the rhythm of the notes. Hold a note out longer or divide a long note into a series of short ones. Replace a pause with a couple of notes. If you’re still worried, keep on varying the melody until you feel comfortable.
If you do accidentally use someone else’s melody, about the worst that can happen is this: You have a hit song. (That’s a good thing!) Someone comes along and says, “Hey, you took my melody.” You either realize that you did and give them half the royalties or you go to court to sort things out. (Be sure you copyrighted your song!) If they win, you may end up giving them half the royalties, anyway. Maybe you have to pay their attorney’s fees. Really that’s it. You don’t go to jail. In other words, don’t let it slow you down. Keep writing, just do your best to make sure your melody is an original!