songwriting dissatisfaction

Dissatisfaction With Your Own Songs Can Be a Positive Step Forward

How many times do you listen to songs you’ve written in the recent past — say, six months or a year ago — and feel dissatisfied with what you hear? Is it a bad sign if you feel some measure of dissatisfaction with your older songs?

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The German composer Carl Orff’s most famous work was Carmina Burana, composed in 1937. So successful was that work in Orff’s eyes that he famously disowned practically all the music he wrote prior to that popular work. I hope your unhappiness with your previous songs does not rise to that level of disdain!

But I want to make the point that dissatisfaction is, at least most of the time, part of a healthy move forward in one’s songwriting style. In short, the better you get, the more you notice the shortcomings in your former songwriting attempts.

Noticing the shortcomings is an important first step in modifying and improving on what you’ve always done before.

It can also be the start of what might eventually become writer’s block. It all comes down to how you handle it, so here are some tips for dealing with songwriting dissatisfaction:

  1. Older songs sounding naive or dated is normal. It happens with every composer in any decade, in any genre. Music composition is very much a “what have you done for me lately” activity. Your fans will understand that your early songs might sound flawed or out of fashion, but they’ll keep it in perspective. It’s more important to your fans what you’re doing now, and what you’re going to do tomorrow.
  2. Learn from the past. A good producer can help put your current songs on the cutting edge of instrumentation, style and feel. Looking back at your older songs will be a much more important exercise to you if you study how you wrote melodies, how creative you were with lyrics and other songwriting elements, and then use that knowledge to help improve what you’re doing today.
  3. Be proud of your first songs. After all, those first ones obviously gave you enough courage and inspiration to keep you moving forward. And that’s huge.
  4. Use what you learn about your older songs in your present-day performances. Sometimes changing the style of performance from what you did 10 years ago to something completely different will help deal with songs that you are dissatisfied with. You can do this even with songs that you still rate quite highly, but just need a break from performing it the same old way. A good example of this might be Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s more recent renditions of “Both Sides Now,” which went from an already introspective ballad, to a much slower, more epic interpretation.
  5. Define dissatisfaction as “I’m better now!” Instead of bemoaning the fact that you wrote songs you don’t feel particularly good about, turn the observation around, and say, “Wow, I really got my act together!” For your fans, your older songs can be an important missing piece of the puzzle to how you got to where you are today.

GaryWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. I also paint as well as song write. I dated many of my earlier paintings and when I look at them today, they seem very amateurish. But I can now see how far I have progressed, how much more refined my technique is today. There is something encouraging and positive about seeing your progress and comparing yourself now to where you’ve been. It shows growth and progress you can be proud of.

    • Thanks so much, Donna, for sharing that important thought. I do understand when those in the creative arts feel awkward about having their older works out there for scrutiny, but I think most people focus on how far that artist has come, rather than criticize them for earlier more naive works. I like noting that the band Genesis, in interviews, were almost completely dismissive of their first album (“From Genesis to Revelation”, 1969, which sold 600 copies), but they’ve rereleased it several times over the following decades, understanding that it is an important piece of information, if nothing else, in describing how the band progressed with each album.

      Thanks again, Donna!

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