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James:

We live in a world where originality doesn’t exist independent of other creativity. Especially in music, every creative decision is informed by its predecessors.

Perhaps Picasso said it best: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” There has been much discussion over what Picasso meant, and although I never met the man, I’ll offer my opinion:

Copying is an exercise in imitation. You trace, you duplicate, replicate, present. Sometimes copying is art in itself: Warhol, for example, although he was clever enough to make his art be about the process and nature of copying, so he’s an exception. Usually copying is a student exercise, or worse, blatant plagiarism (when the artists passes off the work as being original when it’s largely a direct duplicate).

Stealing is another practice altogether. When you steal something, you then own it. It’s yours, and you can do with it what you’d like. You bring it back to your house, put it among your possessions, and perhaps alter it in some way. It’s changed by being yours, and you’re changed by owning it.

If all this sounds a bit ineffable, then consider the difference between copying a passage from the Harmonics’ arrangement and stealing it. Should you copy it, you’ll probably be a bit sheepish about it, and present it without full confidence. If you steal it, you’ll directly take the things you like about it, and then be unforgiving about changing it and even improving it.

That’s the whole point about stealing: you make it your own, and go from there. No artist is uninfluenced by others, so the entire process of creation is a blending of previous work. Sometimes it’s a creamy soup, and sometimes there are large, recognizable chunks in the broth. Either way, so long as you’ve not just copied another work, the resulting delicious meal is yours.

And remember that the Harmonics aren’t the only people who’ve recorded this song. There’s a guy named Seal (as you know), and certainly others out there. On iTunes alone I count 5 remixes of the Seal original, and a number of other recordings with the same title (might one be a cover version?). And then there’s the collegiate world.

And there are your own cover versions. Pick up a guitar or piano and play it yourself. Where do the chords lead you? Or, if you’re no instrumentalist, grab a friend and create your own duet version. You might find some good ideas emerge.

Through this process of listening and analyzing different versions, your various influences will begin to come together, some in a conscious way, some unconscious. The resulting confluence will ideally be stronger than any of the previous versions, as your task is not just to create a great version, but create a great version for your group, which is something that Seal, with all his talent, probably can’t do as well as you. Does he know your altos have pitch problems, and your baritones over-anticipate syncopations?

And should your final product end up with heavy influences from a single source, you can always give some credit (“with a nod to the Stanford Harmonics”) on your title page, and on your album. Nothing wrong with sharing credit.

I hope this helps. Let me know your thoughts (everyone) on the arranging forum. And feel free to steal heavily from what I’ve just said ;)