Frustrated Songwriter

Not Every Song Works

You can spend a lot of time trying to get your next song working, but sometimes you have to stop and wonder: has the time you’ve put into it been worth it?

On the one hand, you could argue that the answer will always be “yes.” I’ve felt that if a song takes you a year to make it work, that’s not a year wasted. Some songs are just like that: it can take a long time before they finally get into the form you know works.

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionStarting songs by working out the chords can work well, but you’ve got to avoid some common pitfalls. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” to discover the best chords-first methods.

But the truth is that not every song works. Recording artists often go into the studio with many songs, from which a few are chosen. The ones that aren’t chosen might be diamonds in the rough, or perhaps they just don’t feel right when pulled together with the others. Or sometimes, let’s be honest, one or two might just be duds.

And so the tricky part is: how do you know that the song you’re trying to finish isn’t going to ultimately be worth the time and effort? How do you know that your time is better spent setting that one aside and turn your attention to something else?

There’s no one right answer, but here at least are some things you can be thinking about:

  1. A song not working may just need a fresh approach. And often the best way to find that new approach is to put it away temporarily. Use the time to change direction with a new song. And by new, you really have to try an entirely fresh direction. Try a new key, tempo and performance style. To not do that means you fall into the trap of trying to write the same song again, and that’s just not going to help the situation.
  2. You’ll know when it’s time to return to a difficult song. If you take it out and find yourself saying, “Ugh, not this song again…” – you know that frustration is going to quickly build again.
  3. Never trash a song. It’s hard to trash songs these days, anyway. You’ve probably got it in a digital recorder, or something sequenced on your computer. And that’s a good thing, because the song that isn’t working for you right now may eventually wind up as material in a new song.
  4. Don’t let a song that doesn’t work get you down. Writer’s block often starts by allowing self-doubt to fester and grow. Spending weeks, months or longer on a song has a way of making you feel like a creative failure. It takes the courage of your convictions to put a song like that on the back burner and not let it eat away at you. But it’s important that you do just that.
  5. Song doesn’t work… Says who?? Sometimes the final arbiter for how well a song works is your audience. Assuming that the song works to some degree, you might be surprised by how an audience reacts to it. So try it out on a smaller audience — perhaps a cafe or house concert — and see what the audience does with it. Most singer-songwriters can read an audience even before the song is done.

And sometimes, getting the song out there in front of an audience can reveal a lot about what actually isn’t working. Your best ideas may come from finally hearing it the way an audience would hear it. Live performance has a way of generating ideas you simply can’t get anywhere else.

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