There are all kinds of ways to work on and finish songs. No one process is inherently better than another, and each writer has their own.
From my own experience, and from the experience of working with many songwriters, I’d say they run across a spectrum, on which I’m going to define three points; looking something like this:
1) Work on one song at a time until it’s finished. Don’t get distracted by that shiny other idea. Get in a zone with your new song and ride that energy until it takes you as close to finished as you can get (or until the song is due).
Professional songwriters of the classic school (there are still many around) have always had to meet a deadline, so they wrote within a time frame, usually on one song at a time, and couldn’t afford to get derailed.
But many songwriters who don’t necessarily have a deadline, or at least a tight one, take this approach as well. If you tend to have a one-track mind and like to stick with one thing at a time, one vibe, one energy, this can work really well, even if there’s no fixed end point to the writing. You write until you’ve burned out the idea… You can usually revisit it later if there’s any mopping up work.
2) Work on two songs. This offers some variety; a change of pace… but not too much of a change. You get relief, but you don’t get confused.
This seems to work best when the two songs are quite different in style, genre, tempo. That way you avoid the danger of using the same ideas in both songs (which can easily happen). And, even if you do use the same ideas, they won’t sound too similar because the styles of the songs vary so widely.
3) Work on a bunch of songs. For better or worse, unless I’m on an assignment, this is what I do with my songs. I call it the ‘Lazy Susan’ approach… or The Lazy Person’s Way To Work Hard.
I develop a bunch of song ideas (maybe 5 or so) that I think have the potential to be viable. They each have at least one area that I like (for example, a good Chorus, a Verse melody, an evocative groove and chord progression, etc.).
I start on one song and work on it until until I get bogged down. This might be in ten minutes, after writing one line (or less!), or it might be after finishing 90% of the song. Then, assuming I have time, I move on to another song, again just taking what I can get and, when I lose momentum, moving on to the next, and so on. Rinse and repeat.
Sometimes I’ll spend the whole session working on one or two songs. And sometimes I’ll get through everything I’ve got and circle back to where I started.
Although there are obvious drawbacks to this approach, I do like having the opportunity to come back to a song many times, in many different moods and states of mind. After a while on any one song I can feel like I’m too close; this way I get to ‘look’ at the songs from a lot of different angles. After I’ve gone over them many times, I’m usually relatively confident that what’s still standing is not weak.
So… when is a song done? For me there are two ways to know. One is when the deadline comes – to submit it for something, or for a gig, or a recording. Then it has to be done.
The other is when I can’t think of any way to make the song better without making it worse.
Then I stop.
(Which doesn’t mean I don’t tweak it later.)
Where do you land on this spectrum of writing processes?
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