It may seem illogical to save bits of songs that you’ve determined are failures. After all, if you’re trying to write a song and it’s not working out, surely that means that the ideas you’re creating are simply bad ones, and you should toss them and try new ideas.
It really depends on what you mean by a failed song idea. Most of the time, it’s a simple matter that the idea is good, but you can’t connect it to anything that makes a complete song. Sometimes this happens when you just can’t figure out where in a song this new idea might work best. Would it work best as a chorus hook? Is it something that sounds more like a fragment of verse. Sometimes you find that no matter what you do, you can’t seem to join it onto something else that goes the distance.
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But failed ideas are rarely irredeemable. Almost every idea has potential, and finding that potential starts with putting it away and ignoring it for a while.
Putting a song fragment away means that you’ve got to record it, make note of the chords and possibly the lyrics and any other ideas you have for it, and then saving that file on your computer or smartphone.
Six months or more later, it might be time to try the fragment out once more and see where things stand with it. The passage of time frees up your musical brain, allowing you to more easily consider new treatment ideas for your song fragment.
If you’ve started a song, been dissatisfied, put it away, and now you’re ready to try it out again, here are some ideas for seeing if you can get that song fragment to work better this time around:
- Look for a second fragment to pair it up with. The Beatles famously created songs that were two different song ideas melded into one (“A Day in the Life”, for example). Doing this doesn’t necessarily mean that there needs to be some connecting idea that brings the two together, as you’ll know from “A Day in the Life”.
- Work out substitute chords. Chords go a long way to conveying mood in music, and you might find that by keeping the melody intact, but considering a new chord progression to accompany it, the fragment sounds different enough that new ideas will start to form, ideas that can take the idea from being a fragment to being a full song.
- Consider a new tempo. Tempo is another element of music that can radically modify the mood of music. You might find that turning what you thought was a ballad in the making into a faster, uptempo song will be the change that opens the floodgates of ideas.
- Give the idea to a songwriting partner. A songwriting collaboration is a great way to give new life to an old idea. Different writers have different strengths, and you might find that an old, stale idea will sound exciting to a different songwriter. Play it for someone you trust, and you might find that that’s the beginning of finally finishing something you started months ago.
It’s so important that you save every bit of music you write. It’s almost always the case that a song fragment that seems hopeless at one point will eventually form the core of a much better song. All you need is a bit of time away from it.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundles cover every aspect of songwriting technique. How to write better melodies, chord progressions, lyrics, and more. The bundle packages contain hundreds of chord progressions you can use as is, or modify as you see fit.
My method is to transcribe my ideas as lead sheet bits. Then I can scan over them and quickly remember old ideas (melody, harmony and lyrics) when I am stuck. I simply assemble the parts into new song forms, transposing and modifying them as needed to fit ideas, from various eras of my life, together into full songs. I often rewrite lyrics several times over the years until I have a version that works for me in the present moment.
The most productive time of my life was when I disciplined myself to write no less than 4 measures a day, regardless of how I felt or what I came up with. I wrote 4 measures a day, rain or shine 6 days a week and at my peak I was finishing a song or two a month. I believe that I can exceed that and my goal is to write a song a week for two years. Every bit of me trusts that is the key to achieving the success I desire.