What to do when you write a bad song and how to fix them instead of throwing them out…
You wrote a song you’re not satisfied with…
You might be booking studio time and thinking of passing on the latest song you wrote, or
You’ve finished a song and you aren’t sure exactly what’s wrong… you know it’s weak but you’re not how to fix it, or
It’s only half done and you’re not feeling that spark anymore… you’re sitting there wondering if you should even bother finishing it.
Perhaps you just “forget” about the song and leave it… never to return again….
Don’t Throw Out Your Song!
Wait! Before you crumple it up and walk away dejected, or start believing in the songwriter’s block myth… there’s still hope if you want to save that song!
The Most Common Song Problem
When you have a song that doesn’t seem good enough, or you feel you need to improve a song, the most common problem is that you haven’t reached your “vision” of the song. You heard awesome sounds in your head but you couldn’t translate them and write them for your song.
To put it another way… imagination is easier than implementation.
It’s easier to imagine a song than to write it.
The rush of initial inspiration and the hopes you had for the song were strong but there’s something lacking in the final version… it’s not as powerful as you thought it would be.
The songs you write are a representation of you as a person and as a songwriter. They are a snapshot of where you are as a songwriter at this point in time. Combine patience with the diligence to improve and your songs will improve. Songwriter Ian Sherwood discusses this in our interview: Songwriting Sprint.
Why Writing Bad Songs Is A Good Thing!
If your expectations are higher than your abilities, then your imagination is stronger than your execution. You have the humility to realize you and your art is imperfect… which gives you the need and a reason to improve your songwriting craft.
High expectations are good… but if you always reach your expectations there is no reason to improve or grow as a songwriter. So it’s actually healthier if you are sometimes frustrated with your artistic efforts.
The last thing you want to be is a songwriter who believes you are infallible, that everything you do is awesome and don’t believe you can be wrong and get defensive at any constructive criticism.
If your expectations are below your ability, you won’t push yourself to create great art. You will write less than your best… sounds like a boring way to be.
Your goals should be to “just beyond” your reach, so you learn to extend your abilities. In the 1920s, psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term Zone of Proximal Development: what a learner can learn to do with help… finding help and improving your songwriting skills will help you create better songs better than you can now.
You can even break songwriting blocks by writing a bad song on purpose… watch this 60 second video to hear exactly what I mean!
Patterns of Discontent
When you expect more than you can deliver, it creates a need for you to improve so you can reach your expectations. This is healthy unless you are constantly dissatisfied with your writing and tempted to give up. Instead either level up your songwriting skills or find a co-writer who compliments your strengths.
What To Do With a Bad Song
You have three choices:
1. Fix Your Song… figure out what’s lacking or where the weaknesses are and correct them… see below! I know it can be hard to edit… I tossed out entire verses and rewritten choruses from scratch to improve songs. Once I tossed out an entire song except for the title and started again.
2. File Your Song… put it away and come back to it later, after you have developed your songwriting through learning and writing more. I have a “compost file” for almost made it songs that I review every few months. I regularly rescue ideas from this file and my notebooks once they have fermented and I am ready to write them.
3. Trash Your Song… is a last resort, file it first!
Fix Your Bad Song
Here are some features that could weaken your song. Don’t despair, this is a list of things I’ve done wrong….
Start with a Gut Check
- What’s your goal for the song?
- What’s weak?
- What’s missing?
- What needs to be improved?
- What’s the next step?
If things are still unclear, it’s time to examine your song in deeper detail!
1. Your Song
Start with the theme of the song…
What’s your unique / interesting take on the theme?
Why did you start writing this song?
What bothers you most about the song as it is now?
What needs improvement?
Is there enough contrast between sections?
- rhyme scheme
- melody range
- accompaniment patterns
Do the sections connect and flow smoothly (lyrics & story)?
Do the sections connect and flow smoothly (melody & chords)?
2. Lyrics of Your Song
What is the story in the song?
Do you develop the story through each verse?
Is there a beginning, middle and end to the song?
Is there a journey for your audience?
The Emotional Journey
What emotions do you trigger:
Is there a progression in the emotions throughout the song?
Creating a Consistent World
Does the song create a world for your listeners?
Does anything feel awkward or out of place?
What are the rhyme schemes for each section?
Are the rhymes too predictable?
Is there variety in the rhymes?
Are the rhyme schemes consistent (especially between each verse)?
Is there variety in the rhyme schemes in different song sections?
What are some interesting / key words in the song?
Does the vocabulary match the tone of the song?
Do the words flow smoothly?
Are the words singable?
What are the best examples of imagery in the song?
Which senses do you reference?
Is there strong imagery?
Do you avoid cliches?
If you reference cliches, is there an interesting twist?
3. Melodies in Your Song
Is the melody singable?
Is it interesting for you to sing?
Could an audience sing the chorus with you?
Do the lyric syllables fit the notes of the melody?
Does the melody contour (up and down) fit the lyrics?
(Stressed syllables are higher &/or longer than non-stressed syllables)?
Is the melody rhythmically interesting?
Is the melody interesting without the words (if you play it on an instrument)?
4. Music in Your Song
Are the chord progressions different in each section?
Are the chord progressions interesting?
Do the chords support/fit with the melody?
Is the arrangement interesting?
Does it build throughout the song?
Are the instrumental parts interesting to play?
Are the instrumental parts interesting to the audience?
5. The Recording of Your Song
If you’ve already gotten to the recording phase:
Does the recording sound good?
Do the vocals sound good?
Are the vocals clear and understandable?
Do all the instruments sound good?
Is the mix clear and balanced throughout?
Does the recording build throughout the song?
If You Still Need Help to Fix Your Song
Get a second opinion
The best help will come from another songwriter, preferably a stronger writer than you, because they can often offer constructive criticism that you can use to improve the song. Even a non-musician can offer helpful advice, although they might have difficulty explaining their opinions in musical language.
Test the song on an audience
The problem with evaluating your own songs, is you know what you were trying to achieve. If you aren’t happy with it, you judge it based on the mental “vision” of that song that you didn’t reach… an audience isn’t aware of your vision, they only have the song. If your song has an emotional impact on your listeners, it’s a success, even if you don’t consider it one. Start with a few people you trust rather than a crowded concert.
Get help – ask a songwriter / find a co-writer
You don’t have to do everything yourself. If you already have a relationship with another songwriter, get their opinion or advice. Ask before sending a good quality phone demo and lyric sheet. It’s easier to give advice if you give them an idea of what you are looking for… tell them if you need help figuring out a problem with the lyrics of the verses or fitting the melody to the chorus lyrics. If you believe in the song, you can also ask if they are interested in co-writing the song with you.
Get help – hire a professional
This is my best advice when the problem is a weak recording. You can do amazing things in your home studio, from recording the tracks to mixing it and mastering your song. But sometimes you need to:
Hire professionals when your vocals are bringing it down or you don’t have the instrumental ability to play the parts.
Go to a professional recording studio when you can’t get decent recordings in your home studio. Hire a professional mixer when you can’t mix your home recording.
Hire a professional masterer when you need to get the final 10% of a solid mix ready for radio.
After struggling through this process several times, I realized that many problems could be avoided by planning earlier in the songwriting process!
How to Avoid Future Bad Songs!
Instead of fixing songs one at a time, it’s easier to avoid writing bad songs in the future. You can solve problems in your songwriting process, improve your songwriting workflow or use different songwriting techniques to write better songs!
Sometimes It’s Just a Bad Song
If your song can’t be saved and still needs to be filed away… instead of shredding it and destroying all evidence that it ever existed, please remember even songwriting greats have bad moments and weak songs… they just don’t share them with the world!
Think of your song as a “failed experiment” instead of a failure, by answering these questions:
- What’s strong in this song?
- What’s weak in this song?
- What would you do differently?
- What did I learn from writing this song?
Write the honest answers on the final version of your lyric sheet and file them away and pull it again in a month and consider if there is anything you can rescue. If not, pull it out in a year to see how far you’ve progressed since then.