guitarist - songwriter

When Practice Might Not Make Perfect

We use the expression “practice makes perfect” to remind ourselves that simply knowing something isn’t enough. Once armed with knowledge, you need to put it to work for you. And that’s the practice part.

In school you learned the basic concepts of mathematics. Once you acquired that knowledge, your teacher gave you endless exercises to help you more fully understand those concepts, and to prove that you did, in fact, learn those concepts.

Like starting the songwriting process by working out the chords first? There are benefits and dangers. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” to get this process working properly for you.

But music is different, of course. The knowledge that we acquire about songwriting is less specific, since we don’t really use rules; we follow principles, and that’s a different thing. Those principles are what I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past more-than 10 years.

The fact, for example, that musical energy typically increases as a song progresses is a principle of songwriting, not a rule. Rules demand, while principles suggest.

That makes songwriting a bit tricky (though the trickiness is the fun bit), and it’s where practice might not make perfect.

The expression practice makes perfect is supposed to be a reminder to us that we get better when we do a thing over and over again. In your school math course, it became obvious if you had truly learned the concepts of math by looking at your answers: wrong answers meant that you needed to fix your understanding. Fix your errors, and your constant practicing will lead to “perfection.”

In songwriting, you can write daily, as I think every songwriter should, but doing so may simply be reinforcing errors in your songwriting technique. Finding those errors is tricky because since your following principles and not rules, it won’t be blazingly obvious that mistakes are being made. So in that way, it’s harder than math.

So what should you be doing to be sure that your daily practicing of songwriting is, in fact, leading to better music? Some suggestions:

  1. Learn to listen to your own music objectively. Listen to every song you write as if someone else wrote it, and be critical. Don’t be afraid to change things that your instincts are telling you need to be fixed.
  2. Learn to read your audiences’ reactions to your music. This is complex; just because an audience doesn’t like your song doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. But there is always something to learn from the kind of reaction you get, and you’ll get better at reading it, and better at deciding how those reactions might guide you.
  3. Know who you should talk to regarding your songs. Putting out a blanket request for comments is rarely useful. But asking experienced songwriters whose music you like and respect is a great way to get feedback that really can help.
  4. Come up with different versions of your songs. Change the lyrics, change the chords, try different melodies, different tempos. And keep referring back to point #1 above: listen objectively to what you’re writing. The versions you like better are probably giving you the blend of principles and innovation that’s just right.
  5. Analyze hit songs, and try to determine what makes them work. It can be best to analyze hit songs that you happen to dislike, because that forces objectivity. Try to get a sense of what the song is doing to uphold the principles of good songwriting. Try to find commonalities between many songs. The more you listen, the more you learn.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Fix Your Songwriting Problems - NOW“Fix Your Songwriting Problems – NOW!” puts the magnifying glass on 7 typical errors in the developing songwriter’s technique, and offers suggestions for solving the problems and moving forward. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.

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