Sometimes it’s the case that you’ve written a song, played it for yourself a few times, realized it sounds bad, and your instincts are to trash it and go do something else. The truth is that somewhere between many and most songs start out as something that just doesn’t work. In other words, most songs begin their lives as a bad first draft.
It can happen from time to time that you write something that quickly comes together, sounds great, and you think that that’s how any good song should come to be. But in fact, almost anything in the creative arts — not just songwriting, but practically anything else we call art — needs to be worked and reworked before it becomes “good”, whatever that word means to us.
So when it comes to reworking songs so that they sound just the way you like them, here’s a set of tips that can help as a kind of guide:
1. Reworking Lyrics
- Write and rewrite verses. George Harrison famously wrote several verses to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that never made it to the final version. In the writing of extra verses, you can explore the many possibilities offered by your song topic. It gives you lots of material to work with.
- Substitute words and phrases. Similar to writing extra verses, rewriting words and phrases allows you to fine-tune your song’s message. So take a verse line, and consider the number of different ways you can say the same thing.
2. Reworking Melodies
- Substitute notes. It never ceases to amaze me how different a melody can sound even with the simple changing of one note. So even if you’re sure that the melody you’ve created is doing the job, sing through it several times, phrase by phrase, and experiment with one or two alternate choices for notes.
- Change sections. Sometimes a chorus can be amazing, but hard to get a verse that connects well with it. So keep the chorus and try writing several alternate verse melodies. With each alternate version you create, you’ll find that the way the verse lyrics come across will be different, and you might eventually find that your first version wasn’t necessarily the best one.
3. Reworking Chords
Assuming you’ve got a chord progression you like, take the time to see what chord substitutions might do for you. If you’re not sure how chord substitutions work, read this post. When to substitute chords, you’re generally keeping the chord function the same. So for example, you might choose C-F-G7-C and switch the F for a Dm: C-Dm-G7-C.
Reworking the first draft of a song usually means a combination of the ideas listed above. No matter what you decide to do, most bad songs are songs that can be fixed. And even if you choose not to fix your bad song, you may find that a line of melody or lyric will make their way into some other song that you’re writing.
So if only for that reason, don’t trash a bad song. Always go on the assumption that something bad can be improved. In the end, you’ll likely find that the line between bad and good in songwriting is surprisingly fine.
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