From music of the Renaissance era, to the prime-time of jazz, and all the way to now in present-day, musicians have been using other famous works as “quotes” within their music.
Obviously, one does run into the problem of plagiarism or lack of originality depending on how the quote is used. Using music in the public domain is a safe way to get around the act of plagiarism, and your own creativity will solve the remaining problem.
The main goal of quoting a well-known theme embedded into your piece is to reinvent it. in some way, shape, or form. People have taken a theme and used it as a cantus firmus, bass-line, fragmented motif, etc. before. If you are expecting to use it as a primary melodic idea, here is a checklist of tips:
- Context – Is the theme “well-known” for your intended audience? Does it fit the composition (thematically, harmonically, melodically, motifically, fluidly)? Can the quote be paraphrased in some way? How about restated?
- Reconfiguration – Will you be able to adjust the pitches and rhythms without losing the premise of the quote? Can the quote be developed into later themes used? What about broken fragments?
- Inflection – what emotional, symbolic, ironic, personal, or associative meaning does this new and reworked quote provide to your composition? Is it worth it?
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