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Music Copyright Law: What Can Be Copyrighted in a Song?

Updated: Apr 2


A huge cause of disparity when it comes to music copyright, is the ambiguity around what can actually be constituted as “copyrighted material” within a song. Ed Sheeran famously proclaimed that “you can’t copyright a chord sequence", but is this true? Which elements of a musical creation are untouchable from a legal perspective, and which are more fluid & open to recontextualization?

Ed Sheeran Speaking About Music Copyright.
Ed Sheeran Discussing Music Copyright. Photo Credit: Billboard

While it may feel blasphemous to discuss copyright when it comes to music, it’s important to note that this world is not just about artistic expression; it's also a legal landscape governed by music copyright law. In this blog, we delve into the intricate web of copyright in music, exploring which elements can be copyrighted and how these protections safeguard the rights of musicians.

Musical Compositions

At the core of music copyright lies the protection of musical compositions. This encompasses the melody, harmony, and rhythm—the fundamental building blocks of a song. When an artist creates a unique combination of notes, chords, and lyrics, they automatically hold copyright over this musical composition. Protection extends to both vocal and instrumental works, ensuring that the essence of the artist's creativity is safeguarded.

It’s worth noting that the unique combination of melody, harmony & rhythm is what makes a song unique & therefore copyright-protected; solely repurposing a popular chord sequence, melody or drum groove is highly unlikely to cause you issues unless those elements are overtly & unequivocally associated with another song.


The words that accompany a melody are equally important and, as such, lyricists can enjoy complete copyright protection for their creative expressions. Whether it's a poignant love ballad or a socially charged rap verse, the lyrics of a song are considered intellectual property. This protection grants the lyricist control over how their words are used, reproduced, and performed. Of course, minimal lyrical content such as words & short phrases can’t be protected as they are so commonly used, but longer & more impactful lines which could be considered unique are undoubtedly protected.

Sound Recordings

Ever wondered why it is so difficult to use a commercial song in your YouTube videos without it being flagged as a copyright infringement & being demonetized? Well, this is because you don't own the right to the sound recording.

Apart from the underlying musical composition, copyright also extends to the recorded sound itself. This is known as "master rights", and involves the specific arrangement, production, and performance captured in a recording. Artists, producers, and record labels hold exclusive rights over the reproduction and distribution of these recordings, ensuring that their unique rendition of a composition is protected.

Arrangements, Adaptations & Sampling

Musicians often reinterpret existing compositions, creating new arrangements or adapting them into different genres. Examples include creating remixes of a song using the original vocals, or covering a song in an entirely new context. These arrangements and adaptations can also be subject to copyright protection. However, it's crucial to distinguish between the original composition's copyright and the new elements introduced in the arrangement, ensuring a balance between innovation and the protection of creative rights. You can learn more about covers and how they relate to music copyright law here.

Another way of manipulating an original piece is through a process called “sampling”. In the realm of contemporary music, this involves taking a portion of an existing recording and reusing it within a new composition. Sampling is becoming increasingly popular as a music-making tool and, while it can undoubtedly be powerful for artistic expression, it's essential for artists to navigate the legal landscape carefully. The majority of commercial music, unless available from a royalty-free library such as that on Studio Lite by MatchTune, is copyright-protected & would cause legal issues if you were to sample it. You can check out our blog on sampling here, to learn more about the legal Do’s & Don'ts of sampling music.

Musical Elements vs Music Copyright Law: To Conclude

As artists continue to push the boundaries of musical innovation, understanding the influence & nuances of copyright in music becomes increasingly important. From the composition of melodies to the arrangement of sounds, every element is a piece of intellectual property deserving of protection. Music copyright not only safeguards the rights of creators but also fosters a vibrant and dynamic musical landscape where artists can thrive and continue to share their unique voices with the world. As listeners, respecting and appreciating these copyrights ensures a sustainable and respectful relationship with the incredible world of music.

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