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Play by Ear, Write by Heart: Part 18
Cautions concerning your mental ear
Your mental ear has a remarkable capacity to remember and bring forth beautiful music from a seeming oblivion. It collects information from every tune it hears, and binds emotion to any mix of chords. Using this as a guide to writing music can make it possible to promote virtually any emotion that the human heart can experience. The mental ear also builds up a catalog of chord usages to draw from for writing music.
I would like to share a couple of cautions, however, concerning the mental ear. It is so common, and so easy, for a person to write a piece of music by heart, only to find later that the piece already exists. You may find, after writing a piece, that the melody or chord structure has already been written by someone else. It is comforting to know that chord structures are not copyrighted, but it is important to also understand that melodies are. If you find that your chords match some other song that already existed, but your melody is different, don’t worry, that is alright. There’s nothing wrong with using the same chords that someone else is using. But if you find that your melody is already in existence, recognize that it is not yours, and you must either give proper credit to the writer, or change your tune.
My second bit of caution is also the more important caution: if this happens to you (you write a piece only to discover that someone else wrote it first) do not get discouraged by this. It can be embarrassing if you have publicized (not published) your piece already, only to find that it wasn’t yours in the first place, but do not let this scare you from writing more! Consider it a great compliment. Does it not prove that your capacity to write music is great? Does it not prove that your musical ear is incredibly powerful and effective? If you can write a melody that is already popular without even knowing that someone else wrote it, does that not validate the talent that you have developed?
Sometime read “The Story of my Life” by Helen Keller. She went through this on a heavy level. But with her, it was with writing instead of music. She was very gifted with words and wrote a beautiful story, only to find out later that it wasn’t hers. She could only assume afterward that she had heard it years before and forgotten about it. She was greatly complimented for her work, but when it was discovered that the story already existed, she was looked down upon by some of the people she most admired. During her recovery period from this most challenging part of her life, she said:
Miss Canby [a teacher] herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own.
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, chapter 14
The shock of the whole event discouraged her from writing fiction for the rest of her life. This is a tragedy. Don’t let that happen to you! When you find that a piece is not yours, simply step down and start working on your next piece. You have infinite music in your heart that has yet to be written, and no matter how good your piece is, your best is not yet written. Write it, and let no failure or fear of embarrassment hinder you.
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