Don’t Give Up So Easily

Once you’ve written a song, you like to think of it as your baby, something that had a gestation period, and now — here it is! Except… you’re not very happy with it. The song’s done, but it just sounds lame to you.

The first step in dealing with a song that doesn’t work very well is to stop thinking of it as your baby. It’s not your baby, it’s your song.

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That means that you get a say in every aspect of its development before you finally declare it finished. And then once it is finished, you get to keep fixing it if you want. And you get to throw it in a drawer for a few weeks and give it another go next month. See why the “baby” analogy has its limitations?

Write a few lame songs in a row and you’ve got the start of a moderate or even severe writer’s block. So what can you do?

Take a look at the following list of thoughts, tips and ideas. They’ll help you deal with songs that are missing the mark:

  1. A finished song that you think is lame was probably lame early in the writing process, so it makes sense to evaluate what you’re doing at certain stages along the way. You have to be careful with this, because you don’t want your inner critic to constantly be evaluating what you’re doing. Remember, sometimes getting something written quickly can help you develop the flow of a song, but once you’ve got a good chunk of it done, take a look at its various components: lyrics, melodies, chords, etc., and fix what you can earlier in the process.
  2. Songs are generally bad if the various components don’t support each other. In that respect, all bad songs can be fixed. You may think that the melody is at fault because it tends to dwell on one particular pitch, but just think of the repeating notes in “Like a Rolling Stone”, and you’ll realize that sometimes repeating notes in a melody can be a virtue, as long as the other elements step up. (In “Like a Rolling Stone”, the freely-moving chord progression partners well with the rather static melody.) It is the partnership of elements, not necessarily one element on its own, that counts in the quality of a song.
  3. Record pared-down versions of your song to try to pinpoint the problem(s). No matter what your genre, try singing a completely unaccompanied version of your song to yourself, or just sing it with a simple guitar or keyboard accompaniment. This allows you to hear the chords, melody and lyrics clearly. Thinned-out performances of your songs should still work, even if you’d never want to hear them that way in public performance. If everything sounds good, then you know that it’s probably the production of the song that’s at fault.
  4. Be patient and don’t give up. Sometimes finding the answer to why a song doesn’t work just takes time, and a lot of putting it away for another day.
  5. To repeat: All bad songs can be fixed. But you need to listen to it objectively and try to focus in on exactly what you don’t like. That process starts by listening to identify the moment where you feel disappointed. You may not know why you don’t like what you’re hearing, but the most important step can be at least knowing when you hear something amiss.

Even classical composers wrote the better part of a symphony that they finally decided to put away and not let it see the light of day. The composer Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies which we all know, but he also wrote a seventh symphony which he discontinued before he finished it. He found that what he was writing was “…impersonal, lacking the introspection he felt a symphony needed. He had no wish to continue making, as he said, ‘meaningless harmonies and a rhythmical scheme expressive of nothing'”. (Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson, Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company), p. 356)

So Tchaikovsky did the next best thing: he re-used some of the themes and other ideas in new pieces of music that he was writing.

So even if you find that what you’ve written is lame — or as Tchaikovsky would say, consists of meaningless harmonies — there’s always something you can do with your song ideas. Don’t trash bad songs, just put them aside.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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