Is any music really original? To answer this, first we have to decide what we mean by “original.” Do we mean something completely different from everything that came before, or do we mean something that is at least in some way different than what came before? If the latter, than how different does it have to be? This is where copyright law comes in, and even then, originality is sometimes a bit hard to concretely quantify.
I suppose it is not impossible to be truly original if you try hard enough, but what you will come up with is unlikely to be considered music by most, and is very unlikely to be commercially viable. When you consider how much music has been written in the history of the world, true originality is quite difficult, and even more so with every passing day as more and more music is created. So composers tend to use the same 12 notes and stay, at least roughly, within the bounds of what came before.
To complicate matters even further, it is possible to create something that came before without having heard the previous work. This actually happened to me once. I was writing some inspirational music for a corporate show. I wrote and re-wrote the theme several times until I arrived at what I thought would work. My wife took one listen and said, “That’s Carly Simon’s 'Let the River Run.'” I said, “What?” (Believe it or not, at the time I didn’t know the song.) We played the original, and she was completely correct. It was identical.
Now, it’s very easy to assume I’d heard the song and was just pulling it out of my subconscious, but I knew the process by which I’d written it, so that theory couldn’t be correct. If you think about it, since we’re all using the same basic 12 notes, it stands to reason there would be some kind of overlap sooner or later. This is where it’s important not to live in a bubble, and to work with people who are deeply knowledgeable.
There’s no question that most composers take a great deal of inspiration from what came before. It’s doubtful we could write music at all if we didn’t. Somehow we had to learn what music was and how to write it. The trick is to put your own stamp on it - to merely take inspiration, not to copy it.
You would think that mathematically we would eventually arrive at a point where all possible combinations of those 12 notes (and the various rhythms) have been done and there is no music left to be written (at least within our present definition of what most of us consider “music.”) I don’t know if or when that will ever happen, but for the moment we press onward, trying to come up with something new – something at least in some way significantly different from what came before. We also (at least in the field of production music) want something that is useful to our clients. It doesn’t do anyone much good if our unbounded originality leads to something incomprehensible that no one has a use for. Neither is anyone served by doing the same old thing over and over.
So this is the balancing act we perform every day. Sometimes we push the envelope more than others, but we try not to lose sight of what we’re doing, and for whom.
As Jean-luc Goddard once said, “It’s not where you take things from it’s where you take them to.” Hopefully, we’re taking them to good places.