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Everything Sounds Like Something Else

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Like most composers, I listen to a lot of music, and study a lot of scores. Frequently I'm dissatisfied with my material and that can be a real block to my composition, but when I am productive, I find the music I produce ends up sounding extremely similar to pieces by other composers. Of course, I like to take ideas and imitate other composers, but when I actually have a piece come together, I realize it sounds very similar to a piece I admire from another composer. I tend to hope that as I keep revising and tweaking that it will become my own, but I'm often bothered by the fear that the listener will say "That's a rip off of Piece X!" It isn't intentional on my part -- it just seems to happen.

 

Does this happen to anyone else? If so, what do you do about it? Do you scrap it, try to make enough changes to reduce the similarity, or just run with it and let the chips fall where they may?

 

 

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well, i mean... there are actual composers, and then there are mimics. every composer basically started out as a mimic but with (a) the ability to identify and build upon the most creative or revolutionary ideas in the music they were mimicking and (b) the patience to put a lot of time into composition, both in writing a lot of music and in thinking a lot about each composition they did write. there's no reason a piece that does refer back to something else can't stand on its own and merely provide a commentary on or critique of the earlier piece—look at brahms's first symphony, clearly a "ripoff" of beethoven's ninth in many respects, yet managing to establish an individual identity such that one would never mistake it for its inspiration.

 

then look at the symphonies of friedrich gernsheim which are simple imitations of brahms's without depth or individuality and have consequently been entirely forgotten.

 

genuine innovation in music is rare (and often born from lack of talent in the traditional medium). most composers imitate. steal as much of another composer's surface as you desire, but take care to make the affect your own.

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Lack of talent is actually becoming my concern. I've been at this for a long time (I was a composition major in the 1990s and started studying again last year) and while frequently I'll listen to another composer's piece and think "Wow, I'd love to write a piece like that," I'm not *trying* to mimic other pieces: it just seems to happen.

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I would not worry about it. Lack of talent and individual voice is the norm, not the exception.

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So, what happens when you consciously try to create something different?  Is it utterly distasteful to you?

 

Sure, using motifs, if melodic you will certainly hear a lot of overly familiar intervallic relationships, and and rhythmic - we've all heard those common/'uncommon' meters plenty as well.  But this doesn't mean your melody will certainly mimic something you've heard, though, it may come close to something you haven't heard.

 

If you're actually 'trying' not to mimic something, and create something 'new' to yourself, then I think all is well, because for you, you have innovated yourself.  You have gone through the process of overcoming your current norm.  That is respectable...to an extent, because, then you show someone your creation, and they point you to the mass of music that is like your new work. 

 

Well, then, are you going to try and create something new out of this next thing, or go back to your old way, or what - maybe you should mix what you learned about your newer style, into your older - try and get the best aspects out of both worlds...or as many worlds as you like.

 

It is up to you to try and break from your own mould.  I think it is exciting to decide where to go from here, as you keep growing, or at least changing...all along the way.  As long as you're not stagnant, then your growth is a very personal one, and I think that it should be cherished, regardless if the world has already heard something like it. 

It depends on you, I think.

 

Surely you won't sound EXACTLY like things you've already heard, if you can manage your 'personal touch'.  But, then again, how literal were you in the OP? 

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I wouldn't worry about it too much.  I was trying to find a specific Vivaldi "Dixit Dominus" a while back and I had a really hard time figuring out which one it was because, 1.  Vivaldi wrote about four "Dixits Domini" and every time he did, he kept certain aspects from the previous ones and just tweaked other parts and 2. everybody else's "Dixit Dominuses" also have similarities to the one I was looking for, and to each other.  

 

If you start with the same text, the natural rhythm of that text will lend itself to certain rhythms in the finished piece, and the meaning of the text is going to lend itself to a certain type of sound as far as chords go.  And then, of course, they were all quoting and resampling each others' work a bit here and there too, intentionally or not.  

 

It's also entirely possible that you are hearing similarities that wouldn't occur to someone else, because you know whose music you listen to all the time.  All the music of the 90's has a sound.  All the music of the 80's has a sound.  Because we get ideas from the musical culture around us, and we respond to what other people are doing.  But that's just how a musical style develops and evolves.  That's how we end up with the Baroque Period.  I wouldn't worry about it too much.  If it's in you, get it out on the page to make room in your head for the next musical idea.  History will forget the forgettable tunes, and sort out what is your best work for you.  You just have to worry about producing content for history to sort.  (:

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Lack of talent is actually becoming my concern. I've been at this for a long time (I was a composition major in the 1990s and started studying again last year) and while frequently I'll listen to another composer's piece and think "Wow, I'd love to write a piece like that," I'm not *trying* to mimic other pieces: it just seems to happen.

 

well, console yourself—you don't need talent to have a successful career. I don't have talent and i had one for several years. Moving in the right social circles (& to a lesser extent being of the right class/race/educational background) is much more important. unfortunately, posting here for help is a sign that you don't move in the right social circles, but if you have money and either live relatively close to New York, London or Berlin or know which composition programs to study in, that's possible to rectify.

 

(if you're poor, well, sorry man. you're fucked. better work more on that talent thing and hope for chance encounters.)

 

i don't think composers should worry too much over talent, the possession of. that's something for critics to fret over. if the music is good, people will want to play it. judge pieces by the attitudes of your musician friends more than your own prejudices.

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So, what happens when you consciously try to create something different?  Is it utterly distasteful to you?

 

Sure, using motifs, if melodic you will certainly hear a lot of overly familiar intervallic relationships, and and rhythmic - we've all heard those common/'uncommon' meters plenty as well.  But this doesn't mean your melody will certainly mimic something you've heard, though, it may come close to something you haven't heard.

 

If you're actually 'trying' not to mimic something, and create something 'new' to yourself, then I think all is well, because for you, you have innovated yourself.  You have gone through the process of overcoming your current norm.  That is respectable...to an extent, because, then you show someone your creation, and they point you to the mass of music that is like your new work. 

 

Well, then, are you going to try and create something new out of this next thing, or go back to your old way, or what - maybe you should mix what you learned about your newer style, into your older - try and get the best aspects out of both worlds...or as many worlds as you like.

 

It is up to you to try and break from your own mould.  I think it is exciting to decide where to go from here, as you keep growing, or at least changing...all along the way.  As long as you're not stagnant, then your growth is a very personal one, and I think that it should be cherished, regardless if the world has already heard something like it. 

It depends on you, I think.

 

Surely you won't sound EXACTLY like things you've already heard, if you can manage your 'personal touch'.  But, then again, how literal were you in the OP? 

 

Oh yes, dreadfully distasteful. I have pages and pages of work that doesn't sound particularly like anything else (at least that I'm conscious of). I'm embarrassed when I put them in front of my composition teacher, despite any favorable feedback I might get.

 

 

 

well, console yourself—you don't need talent to have a successful career. I don't have talent and i had one for several years. Moving in the right social circles (& to a lesser extent being of the right class/race/educational background) is much more important. unfortunately, posting here for help is a sign that you don't move in the right social circles, but if you have money and either live relatively close to New York, London or Berlin or know which composition programs to study in, that's possible to rectify.

 

(if you're poor, well, sorry man. you're fucked. better work more on that talent thing and hope for chance encounters.)

 

i don't think composers should worry too much over talent, the possession of. that's something for critics to fret over. if the music is good, people will want to play it. judge pieces by the attitudes of your musician friends more than your own prejudices.

 

I'm definitely cognizant of that -- in my day job I run a consulting firm that revolves around building relationships. For me, this isn't about building a career as a composer. If it were, I'd be spending less time posting here and more time networking and writing substandard work I know will sell. I'm in this to write quality music that I feel good about, although as evidenced by my original post, I'm not having much luck there.

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I'm definitely cognizant of that -- in my day job I run a consulting firm that revolves around building relationships. For me, this isn't about building a career as a composer. If it were, I'd be spending less time posting here and more time networking and writing substandard work I know will sell. I'm in this to write quality music that I feel good about, although as evidenced by my original post, I'm not having much luck there.

 

If you have doubts, that means you care enough to keep improving.  Just don't let it paralyze you.  (:

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well, console yourself—you don't need talent to have a successful career. I don't have talent and i had one for several years. Moving in the right social circles (& to a lesser extent being of the right class/race/educational background) is much more important. unfortunately, posting here for help is a sign that you don't move in the right social circles, but if you have money and either live relatively close to New York, London or Berlin or know which composition programs to study in, that's possible to rectify.

 

(if you're poor, well, sorry man. you're fucked. better work more on that talent thing and hope for chance encounters.)

 

i don't think composers should worry too much over talent, the possession of. that's something for critics to fret over. if the music is good, people will want to play it. judge pieces by the attitudes of your musician friends more than your own prejudices.

You're aware that most European states (okay, so not Greece) will offer anybody with sufficient qualifications from free state education a place at university either through a student loan or, better still if you're Scandinavian, state funded right up to doctoral level? Money is not really an issue until it comes to getting work out of it.

 

'Talent': along with 'tolerance', a weasel word for our times.  Means somebody who is percieved to possess a special superpower in some kind of entertainment form, this resulting from varying ratios of successful study to the ignorance of the observer.

 

Anyway, to address the point, I find a deliciously postmodern thing to do is to intentionally set out to sound like somebody else and then, well, distort it a bit. Mahler was already doing this with all the 'horror marches' and 'broken waltzes' in his symphones (Charles Ives too, but in a different way), and the Second Viennese School then carried on the experiments via Shostakovich until we arrive at something like Berio's brilliant Sinfonia and avant garde works using 'found' materials.  I'm starting to find that my compositional mission is very much involved with re-casting past forms and ideas into modern 'clothes'...

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While it's still true that talentless but well-connected mediocrities can buy their way into (temporary) success, it's also true that the better music eventually finds its way into the audiences' hearts.

 

 

I find a deliciously postmodern thing to do is to intentionally set out to sound like somebody else and then, well, distort it a bit. Mahler was already doing this with all the 'horror marches' and 'broken waltzes' in his symphones (Charles Ives too, but in a different way), and the Second Viennese School then carried on the experiments via Shostakovich until we arrive at something like Berio's brilliant Sinfonia and avant garde works using 'found' materials.  I'm starting to find that my compositional mission is very much involved with re-casting past forms and ideas into modern 'clothes'...

 

So sounding like someone else is nothing to be feared in itself - as much as the inability to put a very personal touch on whatever we write. So, stop worrying about the similitudes (in fact I tend to take them as a good sign, especially when I'm being compared with my favorite composers) and strive instead to "distort" them at will ;) .

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When people refer to 'sounds like', it usually refers to the vague concept of musical surface, which often has little to do with compositional process, actual content, or plausible artistic meaning.

 

Also, music with high information density is unlikely to sound like anything else if you listen carefully.

 

While it's still true that talentless but well-connected mediocrities can buy their way into (temporary) success, it's also true that the better music eventually finds its way into the audiences' hearts.

 

 

10/10 would vomit again.

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While it's still true that talentless but well-connected mediocrities can buy their way into (temporary) success, it's also true that the better music eventually finds its way into the audiences' hearts.

 

... if it first finds its way into the hearts of publishers or other people who can advocate for it. i've listened lately to (and even tried to play some of) a lot of really good music that has either been entirely forgotten, or was entirely forgotten until 20/40/60 years ago when a young and very passionate musicology grad/conductor/historically-informed performance specialist got a hold of it. and classical listeners still seem to prefer collecting 40 different recordings of mahler's fifth. it's kind of a shame really.

 

anyway, OP, if you feel good about the supposedly "derivative" music you write, i don't see the problem. if you think being derivative is in itself a problem, there's not much you can do about it except put more effort into developing your musical imagination—if you have a strong personality and well-defined musical preferences, it'll naturally come through in your music, whereas if you're a mercurial eclectic, consciously experiment with different things and attempt to break new ground with each piece. (compare Schubert and Dussek, or Mahler and R. Strauss.*)

 

* A note on these examples—yes, the judgment of history holds Schubert and Mahler to be the greater composers, but that arises from a system of value judgment that holds "stylistic fingerprints" in unduly high regard. EG without a characteristic turn of phrase/harmony/predilection for contrapuntal writing/etc a composer is somehow considered less "original". While this form of historiography continued well into the twentieth century—drink every time you see the apologia "a highly individual/personal use of the twelve-tone system", or a description of a composer as "uncompromising", in a history of twentieth-century music—it has begun to be questioned today with the rediscovery/increasing stock value of composers like Dussek, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Carl Nielsen, Ferruccio Busoni etc, who put less effort into cultivating individual voices than into experimenting with different styles and methods of composition. Certainly the lasting influence of John Cage, who would probably be rather offended to have an individual style ascribed to him, on contemporary composers has shown that "visionaries" can be as important as the "craftsmen" traditionally revered (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart) wrt the trends of their day and age.

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I don't think it matters if your work isn't as unique as you'd want it to sound like. Composing is not about reinventing the wheel, it's about writing music that pleases you (unless you want to get rich). Plus, there are have been very few composers in the histoy of music that have never "ripped off" other people's work. It's a natural part of the learning process and with time it will help you building up your own repertoire of compository ideas and mould your very own handwriting. From my experience, forcing yourself into writing something unique and different won't work. Composing is, just like the literal meaning of the word says, the process of rearranging existing ideas into a new one.

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First mistake: caring about whether or not you sound like someone or something.

Very true! This means you're putting more energy into worry, rather than into composing...

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There are only 12 tones which I can work within Finale and a conventional piano, yet there is more than 2 billion (2 followed by an amount of [10 in the power of 9] zeros) ways to arrange the notes (only considering absolute pitches here, not even octave displacement), and this is only the amount of possibilities using 12-tone rows!

 

Sounding a bit like this and a bit like that is good for recognition, but may give rise to compairson if imitation is too clear. Of course you need to take inspiration from somewhere, so be afraid not, fellow composer.

Of course if you wanna be easily recognizable draw some good "distorted, varied imitation" from the masters of the past, but be sure that this imitation is up to their level, on pair with their particular styles, reasonings, internal logics and means of coherence.

 

So, do worry - please - more if your composition is pleasing your ears and achieving your aimed objectives (that you designed it for) rather than if it is sounding like someone else.

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