Finishing Touches: Tips for finishing more songs
This article on finishing more songs first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post – it’s part of how I make things go. 🙂
It’s one thing to have a good idea. But ideas are a dime a dozen. What you really need if you’re trying to make something of yourself as a songwriter is finished songs. Even if you’re not trying to make anything of yourself, it would be nice to be able to belt out an original that doesn’t end with “and then it’ll continue but it’s unfinished”.
After all, tears are rarely shed for works in progress.
So, we thought we’d close out this month with a few tips on actually finishing more songs.
Get away from the studio
It’s fun to go in the studio and come up with new stuff, and often times a fresh timbre or new synth patch will cause inspiration. But it’s often hard to actually write a song in this environment. Things get jumbled and inefficient. Instead, try taking that new idea away from the studio and just writing it out, perhaps with a lone guitar or piano – or even simply on paper. You’ll really be glad you did this if you’re paying for studio time.
Picture a DAW window. The horizontal plane is time. The vertical is various parts, instruments, etc. When you have an idea, it’s tempting to start layering parts in right away before the song is actually a song. This isn’t wrong, but it’s easy to get lost in layering and “production”, running out of time or energy to actually finish the song.
No rule says you must write the song in the order it will be sung. Sometimes songs come faster when you come up with a chorus or a bridge first, get that written down, then go back and find a verse. Or vice-versa. Think of the different sections of a song as building blocks which you can move around and attach to each other. You may have even written the chorus 6 months ago, and it’s waiting for the verse you just wrote. Maybe what you thought was a bridge should really be the chorus.
Finish lyrics to finish songs
Lots of songwriters attach lyric to melody, writing while they sing. This is great, but often you get stuck at verse one. Not to mention that to write the rest, you have to keep playing. Instead, try stopping, putting verse 1 in a notebook, and leaving the instrument and melody behind. Sit with the words and finish the story. Then you’ll have a solid skeleton, without having to rehearse in real time just to get to the next section. Here’s a pretty cool book on lyric writing. After all, finishing more songs means finishing more lyrics!
Well – do edit – just not while you’re writing. If you get caught up in critiquing before you’re through a draft, you’re liable to never finish. On the other hand, if you go ahead and follow the path to the end, editing is usually easier. While we’re talking about editing – do so later. Preferably days later or weeks, to give yourself some perspective.
Creativity shouldn’t be boxed in and you should be free to do anything you want – and you are. But you may notice things fall into place a lot quicker when you have some limiting parameters rather than just the open, unending space of possibility. This is what we old dinosaurs call genre. Try it, it’s useful!
Plan recording sessions
When it’s time to lay down a song, go in the studio with completed songs and a plan for the session. Eg: “Today is for tracking piano.” It may sound obvious, but it’s easy to forget this simple, time-honored practice. This also connects back to writing away from the studio. When you go into the session with finished songs, you’ll know exactly where you’re going.
Take breaks – sometimes long
Our final tip is to take breaks – not only during sessions, but over time. Get out of the studio to take a walk. Stop work to have a date night. Get out of town for a week and don’t write. Resetting and refilling the well proactively is one of the best ways to prevent writer’s block, and nothing well slow you down like a bad case of writing constipation.
Hopefully, these tips will help you consistently finish songs, which is more satisfying than regaling open mics with 10 verse 1s and a half-bitten chorus/bridge every week. Either way, happy writing!