Using Songwriting Criticism Constructively
And Dealing with Negativity
Ever get a negative comment that sticks with you?
Even with ten positive reactions, you don’t remember any of them because that one negative comment is more powerful.
It burns you and circles around in your brain…
You’re in a similar situation months later and you hear the same words in your head… the same negativity so you hold back instead of going for it.
This happens to everyone, we focus on negative criticism for two main reasons:
- We want to be liked, it hurts and we don’t know how to process the emotions
- We don’t want to hear it again… which leads to avoidance, we avoid situations that could lead to similar negativity. We don’t put ourselves out there because it might happen again.
When this goes to the extreme, it becomes a “personal story” and you believe it as the truth.
When I was a teenager, negative feedback about my singing turned from “I’m a bad singer” into “I don’t like to sing” and finished with “Oh, I can’t sing!” It took years of effort and work to undo (most of) that damage.
For clarity, let’s define a few terms:
Negativity is a “no” often combined with judgement… the no-sayer is better than you. Negativity is so common because it’s easier to “explain” how something is bad than to find a way to praise it. Extreme examples of negativity seem to be a result of people who enjoy being mean.
Originally referred to critical (thoughtful and insightful) discussion and evaluation. Criticism has become synonymous with negativity. The expression “everyone’s a critic” means you are surrounded by negative criticism.
I believe criticism is considered negative because professional critics (music critics, film critics, book critics… who review other people’s creations for a living) get more attention for themselves and their reviews if they are negative.
Criticism with ideas to help you improve it. This is the gold we’re looking for… it answers:
How do I write a better song?
How do I improve this song?
How do I improve my craft?
Because it can make us uncomfortable, it can be confused with negativity or negative criticism. The difference is the help to improve (if you are willing to listen to it and follow the advice).
Two EpicSongWriting Examples:
One “criticism” I received was: “Your songs have too many words” The truth is, many of my songs are lyric heavy. Most of my writing is focused on songs I perform, it’s in a singer/songwriter style. I’m not trying to write hit songs for another artist to cut. The criticism was valid from the perspective of someone writing for a mainstream artist or for a band, but when you consider them for a different style this criticism doesn’t fit. I define three styles of songwriting: band, artist & singer/songwriter songs in Deliberate Songwriting.
Truth = there are different styles of music and of writing, that’s a good thing!
Result = remember that there are different styles of writing, know which I am aiming for… then release this criticism.
I posted an epicsongwriting article on a songwriting FaceBook group. It was a relevant comment to a songwriter’s request for songwriting advice. Another songwriter, in response commented something to the effect “…tell me what epic songs you have written and I’ll check out your site….” Rather than read the article, they felt it better to try to slam the name of my songwriting website… really who’s going to read anything on mediocresongwriting.com?
Truth = this is negativity, not criticism
Truth = I haven’t written any mega-hits, not really a priority for me… I’m okay with it.
Truth = Usain Bolt is the fastest sprinter in the world… he has a coach that can’t run as fast as he can… a coach or trainer needs to know how to get you to your goals and how to explain it to you… I do this consistently so I’m solid there!
Result = remember that some would rather be mean than be nice, remember some writers don’t want help… then release this negativity.
For Shirley Jackson, a negative experience in her teens gave her stage fright that she had to overcome to become a band leader. When she first started performing her own songs on stage, she wouldn’t even tell her audiences they were her songs. You can read more about her music in the Songwriter Interview.
“Truth” and “Result”
What’s the truth in the criticism? And what is your result… what do you do about it?
Listen for the truth behind the comments. Don’t take criticism literally. There is often truth hidden in the comment, but it isn’t always the literal words… you might have to figure it out! Most people try to be polite with feedback, so this affects how they try to tell you something. For others, it might be difficult to find the musical language to clearly express their opinion.
Once you understand the criticism you need to use it to get better results and write better songs. Don’t be defensive, listen to it. Don’t respond with reasons why it’s wrong… think about why it might be right. Then decide how to learn from it, choose how to react and improve your song and your songwriting. I’ve received feedback on songs that I used for later songs.
Dealing with Negativity
There are two alternatives when someone slams your songwriting with “Your song is weak, the lyrics are lame!” or any other negative comment that isn’t backed up with useful insight or a way to improve.
(1) Use the Negativity or
(2) Defuse the Negativity
Use the Negativity
To smash through the problem and hit it head on. Get angry (with the problem not the person slamming you) and use it as motivation to improve your songwriting. Improve your lyric choices, increase your vocabulary and write better rhymes.
Defuse the Negativity
Can be effective if there isn’t any truth to negativity. You can go around the problem, by making the idea or the person telling it seem less important. “They don’t know what they’re talking about!”
If there is truth behind the negativity, this strategy becomes avoidance. Ignoring a problem usually causes it to grow. Mean comments can hide helpful advice… don’t discount the message because of how it was delivered. Carefully examine the negativity for truth before trying to release it! The comment about my “wordy” songwriting was delivered in a rude way. I looked past the emotion in it to recognize it was a valid comment, despite the way it was delivered.
Finding Constructive Criticism
Start with people you know and trust to tell you the truth. It isn’t helpful to hear how great you new song is, if it isn’t great or even good….
Find other songwriters and musicians who can give you musical advice. and help you improve your songwriting craft.
Seeking songwriting feedback on FaceBook groups leads to mixed results, depending on which groups you follow. Some smaller groups and forums can get you great results, but I have read so many negative, trollish comments in some groups, that I’ve left them. There are better ways to spend your time! Meet people face to face and have personal (instead of virtual) interactions.
Using Songwriting Criticism Constructively
Constructive criticism is useful for improving your craft and your art. It’s not a commentary on you, your ability or your self worth. It is about this song, not about you. Don’t take it personally, learn from it.
If you ask for feedback, listen to it. Don’t argue or justify why it’s wrong… shut up and truly listen. Then think about how you can use this feedback.
Listen For Patterns
If you keep hearing variations on the same theme… do something about it. One comment could be personal opinion, two similar could be coincidence (or not!), three or more is a pattern you need to do something about.
1. Who is giving you feedback?
Is this a professional music industry influencer who spends most of their time listening and working with music… or a friend of a friend who doesn’t play an instrument?
Both have valid opinions, but which should you pay more attention to? (Hint: it’s not always the opinion you would rather hear)
2. How valid is their opinion?
Does this person know what they are talking about?
3. Do they know what they are talking about?
Is it a thoughtful opinion or someone shooting their mouth off?
How useful is it… does their feedback give you something you can use to improve?
Is it helpful or hurtful?
Is it accurate? Even if it’s uncomfortable, think about whether it is true….
Know your audience
Listen to your audience… they are supporting you by going to your shows and buying your music. Their opinion is more important than any critic’s opinion.
How do they react to the second verse?
Are they singing the chorus with you?
What is their body language?
How does it change during the song?
What are they telling you without words?
What are they saying to you?
What are they saying to each other?
What are they trying to tell you?
You learn more when listening than talking.
The best constructive criticism I’ve received was
“This song is good, but you have too many tight rhymes.” It was true, result = I learned how to write better, more flexible rhymes.