It’s understandable to get a bit worried if you find that, after weeks of working away on a song, you’re still not finished. You might find that every time you fix one thing, something else sounds a bit off, and the cycle of editing keeps going on and on.
As a songwriter, you’ve no doubt used the word process when talking about what you do. You might ask another, “What’s your process?”, by which you mean that you’d like to know how they start their songs, and what happens after that initial step.
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I like the word process, because it reminds us all that though writing music is fun and exciting when it happens quickly — perhaps in one session — we should expect that the activity has a lot of steps, and that it truly is a process, from concentrating on one part of a song to concentrating on another.
In that sense, the question/title of this blog post is a bit of a trick question. There is no good answer to how long it should take to write a good song, other than “it takes as long as it takes to get it right.”
In that regard, keep the following tips and other bits of advice in mind as you work through your latest song:
- If it takes you a year to get a song to sound right, that is never time wasted. It’s an instinct we have to include time spent as part of the formula for how successful we are, and if that describes you, you need to change your way of thinking. Leonard Cohen has said that it took him years to get the lyric of “Hallelujah” working to his satisfaction.
- Songs that come together quickly may still need considerable editing. We also have an instinct for thinking that songs that happen quickly are little miracles that stand as-is, on their own. But a song that happens within minutes may (and likely will) still require you to edit and otherwise change things. It’s exciting when you conceive of an entire song within one songwriting session, but don’t let that keep you from being objective.
- Putting songs away for a time is a great way to regain some much-needed objectivity. As a song nears completion, moving on to working on a new song can be an important step in the process for completing that first song. Putting it away is the metaphorical “cleansing of the palette” that can help you see things more clearly when you return to it.
- A songwriting process can move in two different directions. Sometimes, as a song is almost ready, you might find that you have to work backwards a bit, tossing bits that you thought were finished, in order to get the entire song working properly.
- There is no one correct songwriting process. Songwriters all work in their own way. Some start with lyrics, develop rhythms, then melodic shapes and chords. Some start with chord progressions, then develop melodies. And some start by developing a rhythmic idea. There is no one way, and I would encourage you to experiment with many different processes in the bid to create something truly unique and exciting.
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