Songwriting basics and tips 23: Borrowing Your Way out of Writer’s Block

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

Borrowers abound ……borrowers.gif

All genres of music borrow from other forms – and even within their own genre; it’s been going on as long as people have been documenting music.

Over the last few hundred years, we’ve become very accustomed to classical music borrowing from the folk canon. Many composers have done this:

  • Dvořák incorporated many folk motifs and rhythmic patterns into his works, and his New World Symphony made great use of the pentatonic scales used by the Black and Amerindian singers and musicians.

  • Brahms based a musical work on the old Scots ballad Edward.

  • Aaron Copeland incorporated traditional Western ‘cowboy’ tunes into his work Rodeo.

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Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes …

eye.gif

Now, if you’re really stuck for a melody, there’s nothing to stop you delving into other genres and cultures for a suitable (out of copyright!) tune.

The old Scots folk ballad The Twa Corbies had been languishing without a tune for as long as anyone could remember until Scots poet and songwriter Morris Blythman (aka ‘Thurso Berwick’) learned An Alarc-h  or “The Swan” from Breton folksinger Zaig Montjarrét in the 1950s, and promptly recognised that it was the perfect melody for the Scots song.

English traditional songwriter Bill Caddick borrowed a tune from Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony for his lovely song John O’ Dreams.

We’ve seen that Dvořák based melodies on Black American forms. His American student William Arms Fisher, in turn, put words to one of those melodies, and created a song that is often taken to be an old spiritual number: Goin’ Home. Some might recognise it as the Hovis Bread commercial tune!

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Classic rock?  …beet.gif

There’s a long list of pop/rock songs that either adapt, or just plain copy classical tunes. Here are just a few, with their sources:

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I fought the law … 

law.gifIf you’re thinking of going down this path, then make sure you’re taking the legal route. If the original material is still in copyright, you’ll need the permission of the composer or her/his estate.

But when is a tune out of copyright? Well, that varies from country to country, but the rule for the UK and USA is that a work is typically out of copyright 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last remaining author of the work dies. It’s advisable to check the copyright laws of the country you’re in and those of the country the work was first published in. 

Generally, though, if it’s hit that 70-year barrier, you’re probably free to do what you want with it.

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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