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How to Separate Inspiration from Impersonation in Your Songwriting

How to Separate Inspiration from Impersonation in Your Songwriting

Wanting to be original is a universe away from actually releasing new and unique music.

All music is informed in some way by the music that came before it. But in an art form with so much history, where does inspiration stop and imitation begin?

It’s the most important question facing aspiring musicians today when so much music is available so easily.

Most often, the music that ends up finding an audience is made by musicians who’ve discovered and embraced their originality. You can imitate—lots of songwriters and producers do—but what you make isn’t likely to last.

So how do you take inspiration and turn it into something new?

It’s easy to fall into the imitation trap if you haven’t nailed down what artists you love and what specifically moves you about their work.

Today, I’ll break down the tricky subject of originality in music-making and give you tips for how to honor your musical influences without compromising your own style.

Define the music that resonates with you

Start by taking some time to identify your musical influences.

It’s easy to fall into the imitation trap if you haven’t nailed down what artists you love and what specifically moves you about their work.

Identifying attributes like the way an artist sings or how an artist produces their music will help you in a couple of ways:

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First, it will allow you to grow your own original taste and appreciation for music. This is crucial for discovering your own musical style and perspective.

The more input you have, the more diverse your output can be when you start to discover your own voice. Synthesizing many different influences rather than imitating one is a simple and effective way to keep your own sound unique.

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Second, figuring out what you’re attracted to in another artist’s music will help you explore ideas and energy in an original way and hone your interpretation skills in your process.

Nail down your influences and why they move you. It will give you the tools to understand the music you love, interpret it better, and use it to find a sound that goes way beyond impersonation.

Re-examine your process from start to finish

Now that you have a better idea of how to use your influences, take a close look at your own songwriting process.

Examine everything from the way you write melodies and chord progressions to your preferred instrumentation, to the topics your lyrics cover. If you uncover habits or tools you use just because they sound like your favourite music, it’s time to change them.

If you uncover habits or tools you use just because they sound like your favourite music, it’s time to change them.

Just because a certain instrument or production technique works for another artist doesn’t mean it should—or will—work for you.

All too often, music with loads of potential and energy falls flat because it’s too close to another artist’s identity. Since a song doesn’t come fully formed out of the gate, being thoughtful and free from the limitations of someone else’s ideas in your writing process will give you the best chance at making original music.

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Using inspiration to start is key, but knowing when to push your process into a territory that’s all your own is how you avoid imitation.

Here’s a list of what you should be checking in your process to separate inspiration from imitation:

Instrumentation

Why do you favour one instrument over another?

If you find yourself constantly reaching for an acoustic guitar, drum machine, or MIDI controller to make music, take a moment to ask yourself why.

Sticking to the instrumentation found in another artist’s songwriting playbook is limiting and lazy. For songwriters and producers struggling with this, a great exercise is to try writing a simple song on an instrument that’s completely foreign to you.

Changing your instrumentation will not only help you think about composition and theory in new ways, you’ll also be able to shed the influence of other artists who use the same gear.

Treat your influence’s progressions like a set of rules to bend and break.

Chord progression composition

Do you prefer lush major 6th chords or are you the kind of writer that typically sticks to power chords?

Your preferences surrounding chord composition in music end up having a massive impact on the textures, melodies, and atmospheres that make up your songs.

Stack up the way you write chord progressions against music from the artists you’re influenced by. If they sound too similar, make a real effort to change your approach to chord building and writing chord progressions.

 

Treat your influence’s progressions like a set of rules to bend and break. If you zig when they zag, you’re still being influenced by their choices, but in a way that becomes your own.

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Lyrical content

When you create lyrics about a certain subject, does it come from your own original voice or does it originate from someone else’s perspective?

As a songwriter, the most powerful weapon in your creative arsenal is your unique perception and experiences.

When we trick ourselves into believing previously covered topics are the only “safe” ones to write about, that weapon goes to waste.

Lyrics are hard. It’s all about vulnerability, which requires songwriting that’s brave and open to your unique perspective—an outcome that isn’t possible when you’re emulating someone else.

Production

The way you produce your music could be turning original ideas into bland imitations.

Best practices for music production are a great place to start, but you need to use them as a base for building your own sound.

If you’re in the habit of following YouTube production tutorials that aim to show you how to make your track sound like (fill in famous artist’s name here), then the creative choices you’re making aren’t really yours, or all that creative for that matter.

Preview of youtube video
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Best practices for music production are a great place to start, but you need to use them as a starting point to finding your own variation, not the final step.

Crucial critique

Lastly, it’s time to listen back to your work critically. Ask yourself, “What’s mine about this?” Instead of judging your music before it’s recorded, wait until your songs are produced and mastered to listen back critically.

Don’t get discouraged if elements of what you’re writing still sound inauthentic to your unique voice.

Developing your own style won’t happen overnight. Originality in music is tough to achieve, and it can take years to develop your own true voice.

It’s important to note that blazing your own musical trail won’t always result in good music. Recording and finishing songs is half the battle.

Finding your unique creative voice is the first step. Learning to transform that originality into great music comes after.

Developing your own style won’t happen overnight.

Experiment, experiment, experiment

Now that you’ve identified the way your influences impact your process, it’s time to do some serious experimenting.

This is by far the most important part of creating unique music. True musical experimentation happens when we’re able to let go of expectations and rigid ideas of how it should sound.

Armed with the new musical insight you have about your influences, you’ll be able to experiment freely.

Discovering what works and what falls flat on your own terms in songwriting is crucial in developing your own voice.

First comes influence, then comes you.

Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

@Patrick McGuire

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