Music Samples For Fun Or Profit

Plagiarism is an age-old tradition, but sampling is a very recent technique that allows musicians to directly lift sounds and phrases from another’s work. Is this any different from Ben Johnson‘s advice, to wit: observe how the masters have imitated, and imitate likewise?

Take Me Literally

All music is inspired by what has gone before; we all hear music before we begin to play it. However, in the past, a certain degree of musicianship had to be acquired before any imitation could take place. Nowadays, anyone with a laptop and some software can steal beats bit-for-bit and line them up as a new song.

Key of Grey considers Danger Mouse’s Grey Album to be something of a watershed in the evolution of sampling. Although DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing appears in the Guinness Book of Records as the first commercial album created entirely from samples, few people who heard it would have recognised any of those samples.

However, sampling has grown from beat-stealing to full-scale mashup, where the original tracks are entirely evident. This is actually a new genre and technique, capable of some surprising results – such as Jaydiohead.

Is Sampling Really Creative?

In fact, sampling is a powerful tool that can be applied to a variety of ends, with varying degrees of creativity. It is possible to take a kick from one track, a single phoneme from another and create an entirely new piece of music that bears no apparent resemblance to the original sources.

It is also possible to use a selection of samples from a library and create a unique new musical piece within which all of the constituent elements (samples) are still recognisable. In this case, the artistry is in the arrangement, rather than the musicianship.

However, if the key riff of your track has been lifted from another musician, plenty of legal, artistic and ethical questions arise. The line between creation and plagiarism in sampling is very broad, and many musicians play freely in this grey area… as you can see from sites such as The Breaks

Basically, if you’re just making tracks for fun, you can do what you like. If you plan on releasing something, then make sure you’re using royalty-free (fully cleared) sample libraries – and if you want to sample Daft Punk, then make sure what you lift is processed beyond recognition…!


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