Being critical of what you’re writing is an essential step in perfecting your craft. Anyone who wants to improve at anything needs to be able to objectively critique what they do. To not have this kind of honest reckoning with yourself as an artist means limiting how much you can improve.
The problem with being critical is that, for many, self-criticism tends to come in floods of subjective negativity. You hear something in your latest song that doesn’t work, and immediately you skip to what you think might be the ultimate result: an audience hating what you’re doing, no good recent songs to show for yourself, an entire catalogue of music that sounds horrible, and so on.
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Most of that is not the true end result of songwriting struggles, but our inner critic has a way of making us imagine all sorts of worst-case scenarios.
The best way to deal with an overactive inner critic is to silence it. I’ve often suggested to songwriters that they write quickly, keeping criticism to a minimum until the song is written.
But at some point, you need to become an honest critic of your own music, in the most positive sense of that term possible. In other words, there is a time to silence your inner critic, and then a time to allow it to awaken.
When you’ve written something quickly and you can tell that parts sound fine while other parts don’t, it’s time to awaken your inner critic and tackle the issues in the most positive way possible.
To that end, here are 5 crucial tips to awakening your inner critic:
- Learn to hear your songs with an objective ear. Objectivity happens easiest if you think of the song as having been written by someone else, someone you like and whose music you want to succeed! To achieve this kind of objectivity, it might be necessary to put your song away for a week or two, then take it out again. The distance of time helps you reposition your viewpoint, imagining it to be someone else’s.
- Tackle small problems first. Subjectivity will cause you to hear a problem with a verse, let’s say, as a problem with the whole song. Stay focused. If you don’t like the second line of lyric, for example, don’t consider it to be a problem with the whole song. Focus on that line, come up with alternate lines, and avoid getting sucked into a world of negativity.
- Solve large problems by identifying a smaller element, if possible. Here’s an example of what I mean. You may hear an entire song as “just not sounding good”, but when you think about it, it may be that you’ve chosen a syncopated Bo Diddley backing rhythm that may not be working for this song. So while the entire song seems to suffer, changing that one aspect — the backing rhythm — might allow a much better, more appropriate mood to come forward, and suddenly the song sounds fine. A great real-life example of something similar is Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, the demo for which he recorded in 3/4 time. I can’t even imagine the song in that time signature, and I am sure it just didn’t work, and likely made the entire song sound weak. Changing that one element — 3/4 to 4/4 — helped to make it the hit it became.
- Monitor your mood and attitude. If you find yourself spiralling down into a sea of negativity, put the song away and work on something else. That spiral is often the cause of writer’s block. Stay positive.
- Keep several songs on the go. Having several songs that you can work on will allow you to move from one to the other as you work to solve an issue. Not every song will have problems. Some of them come together quickly and easily, and those easier ones can serve as a much-needed ego booster when you need it.
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