An extremely common situation for a professional composer or songwriter is to be asked to knock off an existing piece of music. It might be a cue from a film score that the client or director absolutely loves, or perhaps it's a song with exactly the right amount of energy and style.
Being asked to copy existing music can be a challenge, from both an artistic and legal standpoint. You want to write something that makes your client happy, but you don't want to embarrass yourself for simply ripping something off. And of course you don't want copyright lawyers to start knocking on your door either!
In this tutorial we'll discuss how you can keep your clients happy by giving them what they want, while still writing a piece of music that stands on it's own.
Define Your Purpose
The most important thing to do first is establish why you are writing the knockoff in the first place. If you don't know your purpose, it can be very easy to lose sight of the point and waste your time on trying to emulate aspects of the original that really serve no point.
Is it the energy of the piece, or the mood that the director loves? Perhaps it's the fresh and modern sound of a dance track, or the nobility and grandeur of a classical orchestral piece.
Whatever the reason, you need to determine from the outset why you have set out to write this knockoff. In many cases you are just trying to capture a similar essence, and at other times you intentionally want people to associate your new track with the original.
Especially in the case of comedy, referencing the original song might be part of the joke. And if people can't identify the reference, they can't get the joke!
Isolate, Listen & Decide
The basic formula for writing a knockoff is this repeating three step process:
- Isolate a single element.
- Listen closely.
- Decide if you are going to do something similar or different.
When you consciously decide which aspects will be the same and which will be different, you are in control of how close a knockoff you are writing.
If you want people to know what you are referencing, then you will make many of the individual aspects of your song the same as the original. If you don't want people to know, you'll try to make only the bare minimum aspects similar and then intentionally make the rest contrasting.
As a general rule, you want to make as few aspects similar as necessary. That's how you achieve the balance between using the reference as a guide but still writing your own music.
The first element I always listen for is instrumentation.
I'll begin by getting a sense for the overall ensemble. In most cases you can grasp pretty quickly if it's a traditional group, such as a rock band, a jazz quartet or a full orchestra. Right away identifying the ensemble will give you a sense of your pallet.
Next I listen for any featured instruments. Is the melody primarily on one instrument, such as violins? Are electric guitars a defining aspect of the song? It would be hard to convince someone you were writing an Elton John knockoff without using piano, just as it would be impossible to knock off Miles Davis without trumpet.
However the featured instrument is also a great place to be different. If the piece you're referencing features piano, but it doesn't have to (i.e. it's not essential to the mood and energy of the piece), then you should almost certainly use something else.
You want your piece to come from the same world, but be about a different person.
For example if I was asked to write a piece similar to Duel of the Fates, I think I would have no choice but to use orchestra as my main ensemble and full choir as a highly featured element. The choir is integral to the piece.
However if you asked me to write something similar to the theme from Game of Thrones, I would absolutely not feature solo cello as the melody instrument. It's just too characteristic of this theme, and crosses the line from "evoking similar traits" to "copying".
What's the difference? In the case of Duel of the Fates the choir is an element that can't easily be replaced with something else. However for Game of Thrones, there are other instruments that could take the place of the cello without ruining the medieval fantasy feel.
More importantly is the uniqueness of the tracks themselves. Duel of the Fates, while an amazing piece of music, sounds like "epic orchestral music". Epic orchestral music with choir is not all that special, so by copying that ensemble I'd be doing something that's already commonplace. But "medieval fantasy orchestral featuring solo cello" is specific enough that it is unique. It's not a combination you hear every day, thus it specifically says "this is just like Game of Thrones."
Next I listen for each aspect pertaining to rhythm.
Often most important is the tempo, because this sets the energy level. In almost all cases I will match slow, medium, or fast, but rarely to the exact BPM.
Meter is an important aspect to listen for because it can actually be a defining aspect of the original piece. In the case of Game of Thrones, the 6/8 meter gives a certain unique drive to the piece.
The main theme from Up relies on it's 3/4 rhythm to be whimsical, waltzy and light. I wouldn't imagine knocking off this theme in anything other than a tuplet meter:
Most pieces of music tend to be 4/4 though, so unless it's something else meter isn't often an issue.
Next try to get a sense for articulations and phrasing. Is the music generally legato and flowing, or staccato and pointed? In general this is one of the elements that you probably need to actually match, because articulation can be quite defining.
In the song Best Day Of My Life, the different elements are very staccato and brisk. In particular the banjo at the beginning is played with short notes where you can actually here the gaps and rests between them. If you were to knock off this song, it would be essential to consider that articulated aspect.
Next up is harmony. First try to get a sense for the overall harmonic palette. Beyond just asking if the piece is major or minor, see if you can determine the harmonic language being used.
Is it basic diatonic chords, more jazz flavored 7th chords, or something less traditional like atonality?
In most cases it is a good idea to choose a similar harmonic basis for your piece. At the very least a major key reference should be matched with a major key, but beyond that the basic flavor of the harmony will have a strong effect on making your piece feel kindred to the original.
Just like instrumentation, though, I advise you to mimic the general language but not the specific details.
Let's go back to Game of Thrones again. In the opening few bars there is a chord change from C minor to C major which is very interesting and uplifting. It's also very specific, which means to copy it outright would be quite obvious.
If you are trying to knock off a song with a very generic pop progression, such as vi- IV - I - V in John Legend's All of Me, you should also avoid the specific chord changes:
Because it's a cliche chord progression it wouldn't be wrong to also use a cliche chord progression. But it should at least be a different progression, for example I - iii - vi - IV. It still feels very quite similar, but is not a direct copy.
It's also a good idea to intentionally put your piece in a different key. This will make you think a little differently as you write, but will also make the pieces feel more distinct if played back to back.
Here's the All of Me knockoff progression in E instead of Ab. Already it's beginning to sound like a different piece.
I also think that rhythm is pretty distinct to the song, so to make it even more different I might try an arpeggiated pattern instead of the block chords:
Of course beyond the introduction, with a different vocal or a lead instrument, the song will take on even more of it's own flavor. However the mood and vibe of the original will be inherently present.
I actually was recently asked to write something similar to the Game of Thrones theme and knock it out very quickly. "Similar" only in the sense that it should evoke the medieval/fantasy spirit of the song, not that it sound like a direct ripoff. Considering rhythm, instrumentation, and harmony, I came up with this:
Media composers are craftsmen, not "artists" in the pure sense of the term. A brilliant furniture maker can create the most beautiful chair you have ever seen, but it still has to provide a comfortable place to sit.
Similarly, our job is a functional one as much as it is artistic. There's no shame in being asked to copy another piece of music, it's just a normal part of the gig. Besides, I would much rather have a director tell me "Make it sound like Inception" instead of "make it cool but, you know, in an epic way, with cellos, and lots of neat chords."
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