To Write, Or Not To Write Original Songs

scaleI came across an article at Wired.com today that touches on something I’ve thought about a LOT!

Since I am a musician and play in a Rock&Roll band, since I play a guitar specifically, THE iconic instrument of Rock&Roll, the instrument most commonly used to write Rock&Roll songs, I am often asked whether or not I write original songs.

And, for years, I’ve had a pat answer that includes these points:

  • No, I do not write original songs.
  • Yes, I’ve tried, but the world is better off without the songs I’ve written.
  • There are only so many notes and combinations of notes, only so many chords and combinations of chords, only so many words and combinations of words, it’s all been done.

Back to that Wired.com article, the author starts off referencing a couple of recent high-profile cases, and one legendary case, of alleged songwriting plagiarism, and he posits essentially what I stated in my third bullet above, that, mathematically speaking, with only 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale (he actually uses the figure of seven notes, omitting the sharps and flats), there are only so many combinations you can make of these notes, therefore only so many songs that can be written, and so plagiarism is unavoidable, regardless of intention.

It doesn’t take long, reading the Wired piece, to conclude, thanks in part to the author’s clear and oft-stated admission, that he doesn’t know much about music theory.

Additionally, about halfway through reading, I was reminded of an axiom of my own invention, which states that over-analyzing art kills it. (I also argue that it induces pain in puppies and kittens, but some disagree with me on that point.)

And yet, I believe he makes a valid point.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve heard thousands and thousands of songs over my 50 years, and I’ve learned to play some thousands of these thousands on the guitar. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about how songs are constructed, and one thing that jumps out at even a novice guitar player is that many, many, many songs share the same or similar chord progressions.

My attempts at writing an original song, then, go something like this:

Ok, let’s start by strumming this G chord, la-la-la, nice…

This feels good! La-la-la…

Now, let’s move to a C chord…yeah…I like that! La-la-la…

Hmmmmm, where to next? La-la-la…

Let’s go to D…um…wait a minute!…

Shit! That’s a Beatles song!

In music-theory-speak, this chord progression is referred to as I-IV-V. The song is in the key of G, because it starts there (I), then it goes to C, which is the fourth (IV) note in a G Major scale, and then it goes to D, which is the fifth (V) note in the scale.

HUNDREDS of songs have been written using the I-IV-V progression, and thousands more have used the same exact chords, just in a different order. (Check out this great article at Gibson.com, titled I-IV-V: The Little Chord Progression That Could, where they break down just 10 well-known songs using I-IV-V.)

Now, put these chords in a different order and add a minor chord — I-V-vi-IV — and the list of popular songs using the progression is staggering. (See many of these songs put together in a briliant medley in the video below.)

This is why I don’t write original songs, and why anyone who does earns my deep, deep respect. Because, they’ve heard the same thousands of songs that I have, and yet they conclude they’re capable of writing something that no else ever has.

That is awesome.