Modern music has not appeared out of thin air. Contemporary works are built on the shoulders of giants, weaving together several inspirational sources, demonstrated in the genre, instrumentation, chord progression, or even just the feeling. Musical borrowing is an intrinsic value of musical creation, and it is fascinating how you can trace it between songs and generations.

Even back in the 1700s, classical composers would come up with related material. With similar musical goals, not to mention technology and instrumentation, sometimes the lines between pieces would be blurry. For example, Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” melody can be found in work composed by Mozart in 1775, 50 years prior. Furthermore, these famous composers would even sneak in melodies from their friends’ works throughout their pieces, sometimes publicly claiming their theft. No remorse. The classical and romantic eras were wild times. What mattered most was the way that an artist used the material to tell their story. The sampling process continues this tradition today, going a step further to directly pull from audio recordings, often entirely changing the purpose of the source material. 

J Dilla, a producer out of Detroit, was a master of this manipulation. He would take small segments of a record, re-ordering them and generally messing about; a process often called “chopping”. In one example, “clair” is chopped to sound like “players,” and what follows is a dreamy diss track. In another, “a living doll” becomes “believe in god.” In yet another, “Light up the skies, his heart does flips” turns into “Light up the spliffs.” I’ll put the songs I’ve mentioned into a playlist below so you can check them out. 

Sometimes, rather than changing a sample’s meaning, the idea is expanded upon. A really cool example of this comes out of Nujabes’ work on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack. In “Aruarian Dance,” he samples The Lamp is Low by Laurindo Almeida, a Brazillian jazz song from 1969. It covers the 1939 Mildred Bailey hit of the same name, turning voices into instruments and definitively changing the genre of the track. However, this isn’t where the inspiration ends. Even earlier, in 1899, Maurice Ravel composed Pavane for a Dead Princess, and within it we can clearly find the melodies and chords that characterize the music mentioned above. The emotion brought forward by the piece is maintained through to Aruarian Dance, demonstrating how far musical borrowing can go.

The options of editing a sample are nearly endless, particularly today, through the internet. Producers have thousands of songs and sound clips at their fingertips, and (despite copyright issues) even modern music is sampled all the time. It turns listening to some genres into a fun puzzle where you match together different music. Maybe you can even make some of your own finds!


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