10 Tips to Help You Finish Writing Songs
Do you have trouble finishing the songs that you start writing? Is there a folder on your computer full of project sessions that have never seen the light of day? I’m going to share 10 tips to help you finish writing songs. Whether you’ve never finished a song before, or just want to finish songs more frequently, this guide is for you.
1. Start With The Core Musical Arrangement
Starting with the core musical arrangement of a song helps prevent over-producing a track. When a song lacks fundamental elements like melody, harmony, and rhythm, producers tend to keep adding more sounds and samples to try to fill a musical void.
I know plenty of producers that choose to write entire songs on piano or guitar before fully producing them within their DAW. When you strip a song down to its fundamental elements, it’s painfully apparent when the composition is weak. Not being able to hide behind sample libraries and FX forces you to tackle your problematic song head-on; this is the real benefit of composing songs outside your DAW.
I don’t write every song outside my DAW, but I do make sure to monitor the creative decisions I’m making. Typically, I’ll try to avoid relying on any sort of FX at all until I’ve almost finished a song. You don’t want to rely on risers and down sweeps to carry your song. Instead, you should use them to enhance your already rock-solid arrangement.
2. Finish an Entire Rough Draft Before Making Revisions
How many times have you started a song, and become hyper-focused on something relatively minor before the song has been arranged? If you have trouble finishing songs, this is likely one of the main reasons. Once you have an entire song laid out, finishing it isn’t all that difficult. You may spend some time swapping out samples or experimenting with alternative sound design, but the hard part is done.
A lot of producers like to start with writing a song’s chorus or drop, and then come up with verses, bridge, intro, and outro afterward. I prefer to write a song from beginning to end; in that order. The only way to figure out what works best for you is to experiment and write a lot of music. Eventually, you’ll find a routine and rhythm that allows you to quickly and consistently produce quality results.
3. Worry About Sound Design Later
Specific genres of music are heavily sound design driven, but many of the most impactful songs in history are recognizable regardless of the instrument they’re played on. Do you have a catchy song on your hands? Is the tune hummable and recognizable?
Don’t get me wrong, I love going to dubstep shows where a distorted F note thunders out of a wall of PK Sound loudspeakers for 3 hours straight. It’s like getting a full body robot massage. However, some of the best dubstep artists are creating musically captivating songs. Virtual Riot, Bassnectar, and Seven Lions are just some of the artists that come to mind.
You should absolutely spend time refining the quality of your song’s sound design, but when initially constructing a song, it doesn’t need to be perfect. If you need a piano, load a virtual piano like Alicia's Keys into Native Instruments’ Kontakt and move on; you can come back to it later. The idea to rapidly get your ideas out while they’re fresh; this helps prevent getting “stuck.”
4. Turn Off Your Computer’s Wi-Fi
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram notifications are poison when it comes to maintaining focus. Having access to the internet isn’t usually necessary when you’re writing music, and limiting distractions are critical. To take it a step further, turn off your phone when you step into the studio. Most people texting you can wait a few hours for you to respond.
Put aside time to do online music production research, in which you’re connected to the internet and actively seeking information. The Black Ghost Audio blog is full of useful articles to assist you in your pursuit of music production knowledge. You can use the 20/80 rule of thumb to split your time effectively. 20% of your time should be put towards doing research, and 80% of your time should be put towards putting what you’ve learned into practice.
5. Keep Friends Out of the Studio
Sitting around in a studio with 10 of your friends might be fun when jamming out to tracks, but it’s not conducive to getting real work done. Rappers are notorious for bringing swaths of people to recording sessions with them, and these additional people usually end up becoming a distraction.
I get that it’s fun recording in a professional studio and that you want to bring your friends to check it out, but if you’re paying for studio time, it’s in your best interest to leave your posse at home.
As an engineer, you have a responsibility to ensure that your clients are in a state that allows them to perform. By allowing them to become distracted, you do them a disservice. I have a set of studio rules and expectations that I send out to clients before I work with them.
Way up at the top of the list is a statement about only allowing people involved with the project into the studio during paid hours. Your client may initially be bummed about this, but they’ll thank you later when you manage to shave off hours of recording time from their project.
6. Push Through “The Swamp”
Writing music is fun for the most part, but eventually, you’re going to have to slog through something known as “the swamp.” This is when the going gets tough, and decision making becomes difficult. Many people give up when they reach this point, but it’s essential to push through it.
A big part of making it through “the swamp” has to do with trusting your production abilities. It’s not a matter of whether or not you’ll finish a song, it’s a matter of when you’ll complete a song. Chances are, your production abilities are sufficient, but you just require more time.
Imagine climbing a mountain and becoming discouraged half way up. You know that if you keep going, you’ll eventually reach the top, but the thought of what’s ahead may be unbearable. You only have two options; you can stop and return to the base of the mountain, or you can grit your teeth, put your head down, and climb to the top of the mountain, one foothold after the other. Writing music is sometimes exactly like climbing a mountain, and whether you finish songs or not is primarily a testament of your mental resilience.
7. Come Back to the Song Later
Sometimes the best thing to do is walk away from a track. Every now and then you just need a break for a few minutes or hours. Other times, it’s best to put away a track for a few weeks or months. Distancing yourself from a project can provide you with a fresh perspective, and help you effortlessly come up with new ideas.
I’m quite cautious about benching warming a track for too long. Losing the spark that made you want to write the song in the first place is a dangerous possibility, and it’s not always possible to get it back. If you plan to return to a song at a later point in time, make sure you’ve sputtered out the core elements of the song into your DAW first. Doing this makes returning to the song a matter of cleanup and refinement, rather than a birthing of ideas.
8. Give Yourself a Time Limit
Giving yourself a songwriting time limit is a great way to put the pressure on yourself and ensure that you use your time effectively. When you have a deadline, things get done. If you’re writing beats, a time limit of 30 minutes per beat may be a good starting point, and if you’re writing full songs with lyrics, several days may be more appropriate.
Time limits allow you to schedule the release of projects more efficiently and can result in a surplus of music content. If you know that you’re able to write one fully produced song and 5 beats every week, that’s 52 fully produced songs and 260 beats every year.
Getting into the habit of writing lots of music can be difficult at first, but it’s something that you get better at over time. Everyone has a different amount of songwriting time on their hands. For some of you, music production is your primary source of income, and writing songs is what you do all day. For others, music production is a hobby of yours, and you may just be able to work on music over the weekend.
Regardless of your situation, make sure that you’ve created a realistic songwriting schedule that you can follow every week.
9. Ask for Help
Sometimes bringing a colleague into your studio is all that’s required to get the creative juices flowing. A second person’s input can help break your tunnel vision and give you a different perspective on your song.
Getting someone who knows absolutely nothing about music to critique your work can be beneficial; they’ll likely have a hard time articulating what it is about a song that they like/dislike, but they’ll be able to provide you with a song analysis from the perspective of an ordinary listener.
On the other end of the spectrum, a professional music producer and/or audio engineer will be able to articulate what they like/dislike about your music clearly. They can provide you with insight on how to modify your song; this is where an average Joe off the street and a trained audio professional differ in their ability to help you.
10. Set Goals for Each Session
So much to do and so little time. Managing your time is difficult without a game plan. The best way to make sure that you get everything done within the time limit you’ve set for yourself, or the time limit that’s been set for you, is to segment the tasks that will allow you to reach your goal into manageable groups. In each studio session, you’ll focus on completing one of these groups of tasks.
In the first session, get the initial song idea down. Refine the musical idea in the second session. Mix drums and vocals in the third session, etc. You can break down the creation of a song into as many sessions as you want, or take a song from start to finish all in one go.
As you write more music, you’ll become familiar with the limits of how much work you can get done within an hour. This is helpful when it comes to providing project estimates to clients and setting up a timeline for the release of your personal music projects. Set goals, break down the steps that will allow you to achieve your goals into bite-sized sessions, and systematically finish songs.
I want to invite you to join me in the Black Ghost Audio group on Facebook; it's full of producers currently working in the music industry who are more than happy to help you improve your productions. Leave a comment below if you have any questions regarding this article. Your feedback is always appreciated, and we'll take it into account when we publish future articles.