More than many other creative endeavours, songwriting is largely an improvisatory art. That notion of improvisation largely happens on two levels:
- The writing of the song, which is often the spontaneous, “on-the-fly” generation of musical ideas.
- The performance of the song, which involves players reacting spontaneously to the ideas of bandmates.
Every kind of creative activity in the arts will involve spontaneous, on-the-fly generation of ideas, of course. But a songwriter, particularly in the pop genres (pop, rock, country, folk, etc.) is more likely to value the integrity of an idea as it pops into their mind, and will often try to make that idea work, with minimal reworking of it. (Classical compositions are different in this regard. It took Brahms more than 20 years to compose his first symphony.)
Writing quickly with minimal reworking not a criticism. And it’s also not to say that songwriters don’t do a lot of sober second-thinking when it comes to writing their songs. There can be a great benefit to writing something, working on it, putting it away, taking it out again, working on it some more, putting it away again… It’s all part of a healthy songwriting process.
So are there dangers to sober second thought in songwriting? Are there any pitfalls to working and reworking songs? Can you work too much on a song? These may all be other ways of asking a more common songwriting question: How do you know when a song is finished?
Here are my thoughts on the dangers of sober second-thought and songwriting:
- Reworking a song should not be done in frustration. Second-thinking should be a positive part of your songwriting process. Reworking a song to get it to work is no different from a sculptor reworking a stone until it looks exactly as they want it to look. It’s all part of the process.
- Don’t allow reworking songs to kill the joy you felt creating it in the first place. If you find that negativity is entering your songwriting process, put the song away and start working on a new one.
- Don’t assume that working on a song means you can’t start a new one. In fact, starting a new song can help free up your songwriting process and get you feeling positive again if you’ve been stuck trying to fix a song that’s not happening easily.
- There is no finish-line. It’s not always obvious when a song is done and ready to record. And as you know, many remaining issues with a song can be solved at the production stage. So if the structural elements of a song still need work, that work can often be done in the recording studio, when you’ll get a better idea of what it’s all sounding like.
- Time away from a song is a powerful editing tool. You’ll often get your best ideas when you’re not expecting them. Putting a song away and not thinking about it for a month or more can be just what the doctor ordered. When you come back to it, you’ll often get ideas — sometimes really great ones — in those first few minutes revisiting the song after a long break from it.
Nothing succeeds like happiness when it comes to good songwriting. Or good anything in the arts. Staying in a positive frame of mind is crucial to creating good music.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.