Igor Stravinsky once said, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” But is this really the case? And is it OK to copy other composers or steal from them?

Of course, not!

This is a philosophy embraced by a few great innovators such as Steve Jobs. But the whole thing is in taking a good idea and using it as a basis for creating something fresh.

How often have you heard the phrase, “This composer has been influenced by this or that composer?” Sounds familiar, right? It’s because using someone’s work as an inspiration is great.

A modern writer Austen Kleon, the author of the book “Stealing like an artist” puts it really well. He says, “nothing is original.”

The writer Jonathan Lethem has said that when people call something “original,” nine out of ten times, they just don’t know the references or the original sources involved.

And composers are not an exception. They have done this before, and they are doing it now as well either consciously or subconsciously. For example, George Frideric Handel was known for borrowing passages from his own previous works. He also used to borrow music from other composers. According to musicologist George Buelow, in the process, Handel improved the quality of his works through time.

handelHandel was not an exception. In the Baroque era, a lot of classical music composers would borrow from each other and rework the music making it sound even better. So, does this mean that modern-day composers and musicians are too much preoccupied with the idea of authorship? A lot of contemporary composers get stoned by music critics and sometimes even the public for “plagiarizing.”

In fact, there is a fine line between plagiarizing and getting inspired. Plagiarism is a crime, and you should never even think about using someone else’s work. There are a few things you could do to get better at using others’ work as inspiration though:

1. Relax

Composing music or creating some form of art can be stressful. And it’s important not to feel pressured to do it. Most of the time, you cannot create something great if you have time limits or any other restrictions to face. It’s critical to relax and be in harmony with your inner self.

2. Master then write

A lot of the time, composers try to use harmonies and styles of writing that they do not master. Going fancy might make your music look artificial. That’s why you need to research well whatever you are trying to use in your piece. Learning through doing is okay as long as you do this step by step without compromising the quality of your work.

The key is in internalizing what you like in other composers’ works. Take an excerpt, a chord progression that you like and use that pice to guide you throughout your whole work. Base your work on that idea you like. Internalizing basically means taking a piece from other composer’s work and connecting it with something that you already know and are familiar with.

Let’s take another example; if you are trying to write a contemporary classical music piece by using a few interesting extended violin techniques, you might want to explore those techniques first. A few really great composers have already created some beautiful sound ideas that can inspire you. You just have to do a small research to find out more about the technique you liked. You can then go ahead and use it in your work or maybe use it as a basis for improvisation.

The choices are endless.

Final word

So, do you need to copy other composers? If you perceive the word “copying” in terms of researching and finding new sound ideas and using those in your writing, then yes, you definitely can do that. And remember that in this respect, copying does not relate to stealing in any way. Good luck with your writing!

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