No one has ever written an original song

Sampling, remixing and mashups make some people angry. A lot of people think that repurposing existing ideas is bad, that it’s lazy, or a form of stealing. We value originality highly. Should we? My own experience of music making is that there are no original ideas. There are novel combinations of old ideas, but it’s neither possible nor desirable to make a genuinely new and unprecedented piece of music. If you want to hear truly original music, bang randomly on a piano keyboard. You’ll be playing something new and unprecedented, but it probably won’t be something you’d want to hear twice.

There’s a group of evolutionary biologists who think that our ideas, beliefs and behaviors are evolving according to the same rules of natural selection as our genomes. Susan Blackmore’s theory of memes draws an analogy between the way songs replicate themselves using musicians as hosts and the the way that genes for purple feathers use finches as hosts. My experience confirms her theory strongly. Musical ideas come over me. I don’t “create” them. Writing a song is like making breakfast. I have an urge to make breakfast, and based on that urge and what I have in my kitchen, breakfast emerges. I can make breakfast while half-asleep and barely even conscious of what I’m doing. Songwriting works exactly the same way. It emerges out the collective social consciousness, spontaneously and usually with little intentional input from the musicians involved.

The meme theory of music takes some getting used to. It’s conventional for us to imagine that we control our ideas and use them to our benefit. The reality is that ideas have a life of their own. Sometimes having an idea benefits you. Sometimes it harms you. Evolutionary biology is full of illuminating parallels. The relationship between musicians and songs is like the relationship between figs and fig wasps. Sometimes the relationship is mutually beneficial, but very often it’s mutually parasitic, with each side mindlessly exploiting the other for short-term benefit. It seems to be mostly a matter of luck who benefits from musical ideas. The memes have rewarded Björk and Lil Wayne with money, fame, critical adulation and, I imagine, a sense of personal satisfaction. The memes mostly rewarded Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker with material hardship, social ostracism and ill health.

If I’m going to sit down and write a song, it works best if I relax and let the memes themselves do the work. It’s mostly a matter of being relaxed and in the moment. Whenever my brain isn’t busy, it occupies itself by playing fragments of tunes, turning and twisting them, sometimes finding new combinations, sometimes just looping some phrase over and over. Your brain probably does this too; it seems to be a human universal. People mostly just ignore these little tunes as they come and go, or whistle them absently, or hum them, or tap them out with their fingertips. To be a musician, the challenge is to pay attention to your memes, and to memorize or otherwise store the interesting ones as they flicker in and out of awareness. Repeating them to yourself helps, since rehearsal is the way that short-term memories gets turned into long-term ones. As the neurobiologists like to say, neurons that fire together, wire together.

I’m an experienced enough musician that I can compose a song entirely in my head or on paper. It works better, though, to involve the rest of my body in the process. I get the best results if I start with my voice, or tapping my foot, or putting my fingers down on an instrument, since the brain does a lot of its thinking with the motor areas. It works even better to get an instrumental track together and then improvise over it while recording. Songwriting by jamming, playing around, tossing an idea around in a repetitive way, alone or with some people I know well — these are all highly effective strategies. I mostly want my prefrontal cortex out of the way for this efflorescence of ideas. I only bring my full consciousness to bear later for the pruning: the editing, the rejection of possibilities and alternatives.

If it’s not the musician’s conscious mind that’s having the ideas, where do they come from? The evolution people say that the memes assemble themselves in our heads, the way embryos self-assemble in the womb or egg, following whatever combination of genetic instructions are floating around. Every piece of music shares the same basic set of melodic and rhythmic motifs, scales, and chord progressions with most of the other music of its time and place. Different Mozart sonatas all operate within the tight stylistic constraints of Baroque-era Europe. Different Wu-Tang Clan tracks all operate within the tight stylistic constraints of nineties East Coast hip-hop. All musical memes are unique, the way all humans and marine snails are, but like humans and marine snails, all pieces of music are narrow variations on pre-existing and broadly similar themes.

In recent years and in Western countries, we have this rule that if you write a meme down first and copyright it, then you own it. This system has a lot of problems. What the composers are writing down is a collage, an amalgamation of whatever tunes they’ve been hearing a lot lately. Jonathan Lethem’s entertaining essay called The Ecstasy Of Influence is both an eloquent presentation of the meme theory and a test case in and of itself, since it’s comprised entirely of quotations and paraphrases of other writers’ ideas. This blog post that I’m writing is an amalgamation of Jonathan Lethem’s and Susan Blackmore’s ideas. My “original” tunes are an amalgamation of whatever has been getting the most airplay in my environment. For any musician, you can see the source of all of their ideas in their record collection or local folk tradition or church hymnal. It’s impossible to accurately and meaningfully separate a single person’s ideas from the memetic environment. All inspiration is based on imitation.

You might be thinking, okay, maybe there’s no originality in popular or folk music, in the middle of the road, within genres. But what about the real mavericks and weirdos? What about Thelonious Monk, Bill Monroe, Igor Stravinsky, Sonic Youth or Cecil Taylor? I would say, even the mavericks are imitating. The avant-gardists and adventurers are floating in a smaller and more personally-defined memepool than the rest of us, but no one operates in isolation. Thelonious Monk had nearly all of his ideas in the context of a small set of song forms borrowed from showtunes and blues. Bill Monroe was effectively fusing two existing genres, appalachian and blues, and all of his songs follow a narrow set of conventions, though it’s a regionally idiosyncratic set for sure. All musicians have their community of inspirations and critics, even if it’s a small circle.

Okay, fine, you say, everybody is plagiarizing from everybody, but we can agree that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday,” right? Even if that just means it happened to coalesce in his head first and not in someone else’s? I would say, that’s not what we usually mean by writing anymore. A more accurate word for this activity is transcribing. We don’t think of court stenographers as writing the trial. Composition is basically just transcribing the contents of your unconscious. Paul McCartney says the chords and melody to “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. He woke up, rolled over, grabbed his guitar and his notebook, and out it came. Everybody has cool ideas in dreams; what makes Paul McCartney special is that he keeps a guitar and a notebook next to his bed, so he’s able to get this kind of gift from the memes under his fingers, rehearsed into long-term memory and written safely in the notebook in the brief interval before it dissipates irretrievably. How many people are that careful to keep records of their thoughts? I’ll bet if you know anyone who’s that attentive to themselves, they’re probably really good at creative work.

The most creative musicians are the ones who crank out lots and lots of new combinations of their existing memes. The more combinations you try, the more likely you are to find a successful one. The mediocre musicians I know are usually very hung up on a small set of ideas that they fiddle with incessantly. The really good ones crank out a song in a few hours and move on. There’s nothing wrong with polishing up and refining a successful idea, but to get to that successful idea, the best strategy is to try out a lot of diverse variations and let them battle it out for your scarce attentional resources.

10 thoughts on “No one has ever written an original song

  1. Pingback: REM: Hyperlinked Essay | Maddy's Blog

  2. Matthew: totally fair response. I completely agree that there are different levels of originality, and that there’s a distinction between the micro and macro levels. That said, I find that it’s impossible to disentangle an idea from its influences at any of those levels. The influences get more complex and multiply determined at the macro level but I see them as still being so strongly present as to undermine anyone’s claim to genuine originality.

    I have very often felt myself rejecting a direct quote from another piece of music in favor of an “original” idea, but I’m always wrong. On later listening and reflection, I can trace every idea I’ve ever had back to a source.

    I have indeed been asked to come up with generic examples of different styles, like the “80’s Hair Metal Song.” These exercises usually do sound less like “me” than when I’m operating more freely. But my “pure” creativity just draws from a bigger and more complicated toolbox than my genre exercises. I’m producing rock tracks for a guy right now, and he thinks I’m some kind of genius because I come up with these guitar parts that are super dissonant and exotic-sounding. But if Thelonious Monk were in the room, he’d recognize all the chord voicings I’m copping from him. They just sound original because of the rock context. If true originality exists at all, I think it’s in the finding of unlikely contexts for existing ideas, not in the ideas themselves.

  3. My biggest problem with this is that it the writer seems to make no distinction between the idea of originality on a macro/micro level. The fact that all songs are essentially made of sound, and that sound is something we have heard before and existed before us does not disprove the idea that there are varying levels of originality, or at least in the realistic sense in which we use that word. Original does not have to mean “free from any and all influences.”

    Example: I’m sure that, as a composer, you have found yourself rejecting ideas/notes/passages while writing a piece because they called too much of a direct mental connection to an unrelated piece. So you re-tool to find something that you feel expresses your ideas in a more individualistic, or ‘original,’ way.

    Now if I asked you to write a piece to be recorded in 5 minutes that was *intentionally* supposed to sound like an artist/genre you are familiar with, I’m sure that you could make a reasonable approximation. Would this recording (“80’s Hair Metal Song” or “Song in the Style of the Cure,” e.g.) be equally ‘original’ as the music you created and expressed to be an official representation of your sound?

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  5. If I alter an existing melody by one note and claim it as original, neither the law nor common sense is going to agree with me. The point of my post isn’t that every piece of music is identical, the point is that “new” ideas are slight and incremental variants on existing ideas, with those variations being so slight as to contradict the conventional sense of the word original.

  6. Even if glitch was made by mistake, still original. And even if altered slightly by a small increment, it is still original. A car made with the same basic principal as a standard car, but happens to have a 5th wheel in the middle, that’s quite original. The first guitarist to play a pentatonic scale with distortion and sweep picking is original to the regular scale played clean. Nothing has to be radically different to be original. I don’t value originality very highly but I do regard common sense much higher than technicalities. And saying there is no original is one of the most short sighted things someone can say.

  7. How can deny that the first glitch song was not original? And synthesizers? The fact the for hundreds of years they couldn’t fathom what a wave form was, and synthesizers and processors changed that. Glitch uses sounds like CD’s skipping, not a normal “pitch”, so you’d be saying that that is not original.
    I think you are comparing humans and music to be too similar. Hendrix wasn’t an original human, but his music was sounds and compositions no one had ever heard, and some still can’t be copied. His music is therefor original. His ideas weren’t, but he was the first to achieve these sounds.
    The first person to use a phaser was original, first to use distortion, first to use the wah peddle, were all original. Even the first to play the C major scale using these effects was original. Yes, the scale has been used hundreds of times, the fact is the C major scale played on a guitar with clean sound is perceived as different than a guitar with standard distortion.
    There are few originals, and I agree most everything out now is not original, but saying that there is no such thing as original, is just plain ignorant to think.

    • I think the first glitch song was an accident, which is not what we usually mean by original. Synthesizers emerged very gradually, from tone generators through theremins and into moogs and such, and each step was only a small increment further away from what had come before it. Jimi Hendrix was unique, but he wasn’t the first person to play blues scale or feed a guitar back. He was one of the first to do it really well, and nobody sounds precisely like him, but he was operating squarely in the middle of an R&B tradition that was decades old. I don’t think there are any major radical leaps forward out of the blue, in music or anything else. I also don’t think originality is very valuable. It’s more important to me that musicians be truthful.

  8. In the sense that every new composition or performance is unique, I agree with you. What I mean is that there isn’t a lot of novelty of content in new songs and improvisation. Every performance and listening experience of, like, the C major scale is unique, but it’s the same scale every time. It’s like the way every human being is unique, but still very similar to everybody else in terms of the basic anatomy and biochemistry.

  9. Of course every song is original, if you measure from the simultaneous perspective of the artists and listeners.

    One song, two perspectives.


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