Composition vs Plagiarism

I hear a lot of talk about people who think John Williams is a “thief.” And it’s true…when you get into the academic side of music, you find a lot of common links between his works and that of the great composers that came before him. But really, how is that theft? Composition has always been about refining, alluding and combining elements from previously developed ideas. Every composer uses contextually relevant building blocks to create the whole. Observe the very definition of composition:

  • Merriam-webster #1: the act or process of composing; specifically : arrangement into specific proportion or relation and especially into artistic form
  • #1: the act of putting together or making up by combining parts or ingredients
  • “The Emerging Film Composer”: To put things in a particular arrangement; to organize elements in a particular way.

Notice how there is generally no mention of how “original” a piece of music has to be, or what percentage of the base thematic material has to be completely new and unused throughout the entirety of music history. Because setting such a definition would be nigh impossible (not to mention having to conform to it…it would take a research team to cover all your bases). There are only twelve damn notes, and only so many permutations exist. There’s so much music out there that you couldn’t possibly even listen to it all in a lifetime. You can either inadvertently plagiarize (or perhaps, subconsciously plagiarize), or you can do it on purpose with the intent to carry over the context of THAT piece into your own. Composers do both of these all the time. Bellis calls the muse a “recycler.”

The Muse

Aaron Copland, a remarkably accomplished composer for both the concert hall and visual media, had this to say on the subject:

I don’t compose…I assemble materials.

It took me a while to get over the fact that no matter what I write, someone somewhere wrote something that is at least pretty similar. However, it is no question that plagiarism is a very real phenomenon. You can’t simply steal a piece and claim it as your own, nor can you steal a whole melody as the main idea for your own work. So where do we draw the line? Many say that Williams steps over the line on numerous occasions. I disagree, and I’ll go over some of the examples people cite (of course, all are welcome to post examples of their own in the comments section. I’d be happy to address those!). So without further ado, a vindication of all these Williams aspersions from Academia!

E.T. is arguably John’s finest score, so I’ll defend this one ’round perdition’s flames. But here you go, judge for yourself:

Dumky Trio

ET Flying Theme

Certainly the first portion of the phrase is identical. So what? That covers the first two bars of the eight that constitute the main ET flying theme, and that’s only a fraction of the cue’s thematic makeup. Williams took two bars and developed it into something new. That’s what composer’s do: they develop ideas. That’s where the originality comes in.

I’ll bring up one of my own that I discovered early on from Star Wars. Recall the scene in which C3PO and R2D2 are wandering the Dune Sea, searching for any sign of life. There are some striking similarities to the second part of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Le Sacrifice, Introduction

Dune Sea

Still not the same! True, they are extremely similar…so much so that it must have been used as inspiration or perhaps even a temp track. But they aren’t quite the same notes, nor does it linger on that particular orchestration for too long. There’s even an original motif sprinkled about in the similar portion of Williams’ cue. It was, just like the previous example, a jumping-off point.

You see, the greats have always stolen music in order to find their own voice. Music history is littered with thousands of examples of this. Beethoven himself borrowed from Mozart:

Mozart 40th – Allegro Asai

Beethoven 5th (Scherzo, Allegro)

And in turn, Brahms borrowed from Beethoven!

Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata

Brahms Symphony No 4

Incidentally, when Brahms was confronted with the similarities some of his works had to that of Beethoven’s, his response was famously…

Any ass can see that.

As such we find numerous asses on the internet pointing out how these composers are “hacks” and “unoriginal” because their ideas didn’t spontaneously appear in a vacuum. You can’t get something from nothing. And you can’t get really good without having a firm foundation in what has already been done. Stravinsky, himself praised as a pioneer in music, had this to say on the subject:

Good composers borrow. Great composers steal.

That was originally a quote from T.S. Elliot regarding plays, so there’s added irony to Igor “stealing” the phrase and adapting it to fit music rather than literature.

So we’ve established that crying plagiarism is generally not deserved. But that’s not to say that you can’t get pretty close to the line. James Horner, for example, has come closer to plagiarism than Williams ever has. I can’t believe how people rip into John Williams, perhaps the best composer of our time, and say nothing of this guy. Here he borrows from Shostakovich without changing the orchestration, chord progression or even key!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 5

Patriot Games

Clear and Present Danger

And here, he borrows a motif note-for-note form Mahler and uses it not as ornamentation in his score, but as thematic material.

Mahler Symphony No 3

Nazi Theme from The Rocketeer

He even uses the very same themes and motifs between radically different pictures (as in, not the same franchise) as though he has built a rather small library of ideas pulled whenever he needs “action” or “romance.” Mind you, these are core musical ideas for the cue that recur throughout, not just these small samples:

Genesis Countdown – Kahn

The Flying Circuis – Rocketeer


Mask of Zorro

Wrath of Kahn

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas



Going After Newt – Aliens

Genesis Countdown – Kahn

So, what do you think? Does this constitute plagiarism? There’s no denying that it gets much closer than anything Williams has done, but it’s also important to note that in some ways it’s not fair to judge any film composers because few of us have ever been on a ludicrous deadline to churn out music for for a film. Bellis writes:

There are not only no pundits in our profession, there is no call for pundits. To profess “punditry” however, is rampant.

Rampant, indeed. I’m not blind to the irony here. So I guess I’ll just reserve judgement on ol’ Mr. Horner until I end up getting the chance to do this myself. Then and only then will I have the authority and perspective to explore this issue more fully. In the meantime, tread lightly when you are tempted to toss the word “plagiarism” around. Before you speak, take some time to remember the words of the great Erich Leinsdorf…

Beethoven borrowed from both Bach and Mozart in a way that shows intimate acquaintance with their works. It would be absurd, of course, to regard these borrowings as plagiarism. This was merely a way to give a quotation from an admired work a new dimension of meaning in the context of one’s own composition. A great work does not exist in splendid isolation; it is the result of a composer’s development and of music’s continuing history.

Copyright © 2019 Brian LaGuardia | Rock Band by Catch Themes