Why Are Songs So Hard To Finish?

When your (lack of) imagination causes your creative brain to stop.


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music staff paper and pencilAs humans, we can do something that appears to be unique amongst earth species: spontaneously imagine musical ideas. We also love doing so. But imagining ideas, and then fashioning a completed song are, as we are often painfully aware, two separate things. Most people (even untrained, inexperienced folks with apparently no musical ability) can spontaneously imagine short musical ideas. It’s part of being a human.

Why is it that those initial ideas are so comparatively easy to generate, while writing complete songs tends to be much harder?

When you get stuck, it’s usually a problem with your imagination which then causes your creative brain to stop. And yes, imagination is different from creativity. Imagination is the ability to conjure ideas seemingly out of thin air, while creativity is the ability to assemble those imagined bits into something “worthwhile.”

So it’s your imagination that is the sticking point, and the problem with finishing a song happens when you say to yourself, partway through a songwriting project, “NOW what do I do?”

And that’s the spot, isn’t it? You’ve got a good chorus working, or you find yourself halfway through a verse, and then… blank. You don’t know where to go, or what to do next.

You have a much better chance of success in songwriting if, early on, you create a sketch of your song. It might be a drawing, with different symbols representing the different parts. It might be a written description, using words, of how you envision the song working. Or it might be a timeline, with chords, melodic bits and lyrics thrown in.

In any case, if you are writing your songs by playing an instrument, singing, and never doing much more than writing lyrics and chords down, you are very likely to hit that brick wall we call “NOW what do I do?”

That’s because songs have disparate parts, any one of them serving as an important contrast to other parts. And it’s usually not random. Verses contrast with choruses in certain predictable ways.

If you haven’t done a sketch of your songs before as a prelude to writing one, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Keep verse melodies a little lower in pitch than chorus melodies.
  2. Use a pre-chorus if your verse is very short, or very unadventurous, or if it ends far away (in pitch) than the starting notes of the chorus.
  3. Use a bridge if your lyric is incomplete at the end of the second verse. (Add the bridge usually after the second chorus).

Now start sketching. Get 2 pieces of paper and pencil, turn the paper sideways, and draw large blocks for each section of your song. You’re going to sketch out what your song is going to communicate to the audience.

Use a first version of your sketch to describe the story or situation you’re singing about. What will verse 1 convey? How will the story or situation develop in verse 2. What mood will you convey in the chorus? What will happen in the bridge? Don’t worry so much about specific lyrics here, though if catchy words and phrases come to mind, do write them down. But mainly, use prose to let your story develop.

Then on the second sheet, start writing specifics. Write lyrics, chords, and any other musical ideas you plan to use. As you work, keep playing your ideas, and keep changing your sketch as you modify your song.

Working this way has a great advantage over simply playing and singing: it reminds you that certain sections of your song may be working brilliantly while other sections just need a bit of work.

Most of the time, songwriters get stuck when they lose a sense of the form of music, which gets translated to “NOW what do I do?” By keeping a sketch of your song and modifying it as your song develops, you keep focused on that one vital part of successful music.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. I get stuck and leave the bones of song ideas laying in wait, some for decades. It would be fun to “resurrect” them with proper structure. Because I am not well-trained, I hear progressions and write melodies by singing or play my sax. It’s the structure and knowing chord progressions that fit what I hear in my mind that frustrates me. I can hear fairly complex structure but I don’t know how to translate it. Sometimes a whole song idea comes to me, and I rush to get it down, either hum it and then scramble to put some chords behind it or I hear chords and melody just tumbles out of me. Love those times!

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