How to Finish Your Songs
Why you don’t finish songs and how to finish them
Does any of this sound familiar?
You strike inspiration with a brilliant song idea!
You’re excited by this awesome soon to be song everyone will love!
You get to work, ideas flow… then slow… then stop….
You take a break and pick it up again later, but it’s not as good as what you were hearing before.
It’s not as good as you thought, your ideas don’t reflect the sounds you first heard.
You try again, but the spark is hard to find.
You put away for a day that becomes a week, until it falls into your abandoned file.
With all those other unfinished songs in that growing pile of “I’ll get to it later” but that really means probably never.
Why don’t you finish your songs?
- Why do you lose the magic so often?
- How do you deal with your growing collection of unfinished songs that never get completed?
- Why do you have more unfinished songs that finished ones?
- How do you push songs through so you get them finished?
- How can you make it easy to finish songs?
First: This is Normal
It’s natural to begin a song and be so excited you forget other songs that never got finished.
Songwriting is hard, making decisions can be difficult, and finding the magic combination that creates an awesome song isn’t something that fits in a simple formula.
Second: The Research is in…
The emotional process, the ups and downs of enthusiasm, that you have felt while working on (and getting frustrated) your songs… has been studied by psychologists, researching other areas of human behaviour: “The Emotional Stages of Change” is a natural cycle of emotional reactions to change and growth. It was originally described by Don Kelley and Daryl Conner, in the late 1970s. Daryl Conner, a change management specialist, has written books focused on business management (link in sources, below). This model is used to describe how people negatively react to changes in business systems (because there’s big money in explaining why businesses are messed up)
What does this have to do with songwriting?
The parallels are obvious, once you first see them! This framework can describe why you aren’t finishing your songs… steps to help you finish your songs are included at the end.
- Each of the 5 phases are from the original model are explained, then through
- the analogy of building a workout routine (because most of us have tried to improve our fitness through a failed exercise routine) and finally are
- directly applied to how you write a song… so you can stop abandoning your songs before they are done!
1. Uninformed Optimism
You don’t know that it will be difficult, all you know is that you are excited and can’t wait to get started!
You are excited to be starting something new workout routine, sign up for a gym membership, buy new running shoes and new workout clothes, you tell everyone how awesome it will be….
When you first have an idea for a new song… you know it will be a hit, the best song you have ever written. You can hear all of the amazing possibilities and can’t wait to get started!
2. Informed Pessimism
You realize that it is difficult, you notice you aren’t really that excited anymore, you start to find excuses… this phase is nicknamed the “Valley of Despair”, a great metaphor!
Working out is harder than you thought, you miss a workout, then you start skipping workouts, then you haven’t done a workout for a week… where did I put that gym membership card again?
This is where you realize that it’s harder to write the song than you thought.
Details start to overwhelm you and all your bad habits and procrastination tactics kick in…
- The chorus is meh.
- The rhyme between the first two lines is lame.
- The fourth line in the first verse doesn’t work.
- You have no idea what to write about in the second verse.
What was the song supposed to be about anyway?
Why should I even bother?
This is where and why so many songs are abandoned!
3. Hopeful Realism
There is light at the end of the tunnel, you know there is an end to the journey
Upward swing… there are small breakthroughs, and you get excited about it again!
You work out two days in a row, then three… this isn’t as hard as you thought.
Songwriting: “It’s Almost Good”
Sometimes it’s a sudden breakthrough, or a random comment from a friend, or you pull out the song and read through it… you realize it’s only half as crappy as you thought! Change a few words and it could almost be good with a little more work!
4 Informed Optimism
You know what you are doing, and you have hope to finish.
After a few weeks of failure, you are finally getting the hang of it. There is still more to do but you are feeling like you will get this figured out
Songwriting: “It’s Almost Done”
You aren’t finished yet, keep editing – sometimes you think it’s finished but needs more polish.
If you stop here and call your song done, it might make it to the good song folder, but it’s not great yet
Congratulations… you got somewhere… mission accomplished, change created!
You have several weeks of regular work out in a row, and you are feeling stronger than ever… you are already thinking about how to push yourself harder and what your next goal should be.
Songwriting” “Demo Time”
Your song is done, time to level it up with a recording so you can share it with the world.
What is your goal for the song?
Play it for yourself, YouTube video, home demo, produced demo, radio ready?
Get it Recorded
Spoiler alert… this cycle hits me throughout the recording / mixing / mastering process whenever I record a demo too!
Release the Song: time to publicize it
Spoiler alert… this has a similar cycle until you get into the groove and learn how to publicize yourself properly.
The Big Picture:
These five steps are usually presented as a journey, with each phase separate from the others. It’s makes things nice and easy to understand… too bad life and human emotions don’t fit into easy compartments!
Here’s how my successful songs often play out:
Notice the random “peaks and valleys” where phases 2 and 3 alternate, with a little stagnation (3.5) while the song sits around in a file for a while!
1. Realize it’s normal
Stop freaking out… and stop tossing your songs away!
2. Believe in yourself
Realize that your self doubts are helpful when you focus them correctly
3. Outline your songs
Know what you want to say with your song… can’t tell you how much time I have saved by figuring out what I want to say, or what story I want to tell in a song before writing into a dead end and getting stuck.
4. Observe your common patterns
Realizing what you are doing wrong is the first step to solving them… then:
5. Interrupt your negative patterns
When you catch yourself doing something you want to change do something differently!
6. Test your songs
Get reliable second and third opinions. For an explanation of how to test a song (and many other awesome ideas, read:
7. Follow through
Consistent effort beats talent every time (yes, you need both!)
Learn about Daily Songwriting
8. Review your songwriting notes regularly
Sift through your half finished and abandoned songs with an open mind on a regular basis (I review my last few month’s writing every other week, go through your old stuff at least once a month). I have a “compost pile” where I let them sit for a bit… I find all sorts of treasures in there.
9. Don’t settle for writing second best songs
Edit, edit, edit (and know when to stop editing and start recording)
Help other songwriters by leaving a comment:
Where do most of your songs get stuck or abandoned?
What do you do to finish them?