When most of us start out writing songs, it’s pretty difficult for us to know when a song is officially finished. The more songs you write and the better you know your own process, the easier this will become. That being said, here are some things you can do right away to help you know whether the song you’re currently working on is done or needs a little more creative love. I’ve listed a few questions you can ask yourself to help you decide where your song is in the process.
While I most certainly wouldn’t suggest accepting any critique comment as gospel, I would recommend that you consider a professional song critique on songs you believe are close to finished. The insights that experienced industry professionals provide can serve multiple purposes. First, they might help you make your song more commercially viable and if your goal is getting your song cut, this can be useful. Secondly, even if you don’t change your song based on a critique comment you receive, you might keep that comment in mind and apply it on future songs. At the very least, it’s good from time to time to have an outsider listen to your song to make sure the message – both lyrically and musically – you’re trying to convey is coming across to someone who wasn’t involved in the writing process.
I know that not all songwriters are singer-songwriters but for those of you who are, performing a song live is a great way to know/observe whether your song is having the intended effect. Are the parts of the song you were hoping to create an emotion – laughter, tears, etc. – working on your listeners? Is your song holding their attention all the way to the end? These are the sorts of questions a live performance of your song can answer in a way that is markedly different from sitting in a writing room and wondering.
I don’t care how many times you’ve played your song while you’re writing it or even how many times you’ve performed it live. Until you’ve had a seat and listened to a rough recording of your song and heard it like an audience member would, you’ll be missing a vital part of the process of completing your song. It’s amazing to me how many little tweaks present themselves when I’m simply listening back to a recorded version of my song and looking at my lyric sheet. I’m not talking about making a professional recording, I mean a simple guitar or piano and vocal recorded to your smart phone. It’s the process of disengaging from the performance of the song that makes things clear.
Something to keep in mind when you set out to write a song is what you’re hoping to achieve by writing it. Are you trying to create a three-minute snapshot of a moment? Make a broad statement about humanity? Whatever it is, keep your vision in mind throughout the creative process and make sure when you’ve finished your song that you’ve stayed true to this original goal. Often, we’ll start out with an idea and then meander a bit in service of a cool rhyme or musical approach. Part of the process of determining your song’s level of completion is how closely you’ve stayed true to your original goal for the song.
Often, if you’re stuck on a song that doesn’t seem to want to be finished, what the song really wants is to be put away for a while. This becomes easier when you have several songs going at the same time. Letting your subconscious chip away at the problem spots in your songs can be incredibly useful and cut down on the frustration quotient significantly. It can be as short a span as overnight or as long as years. Sometimes our songs have to finish themselves at their own pace no matter how hard we try.
Sometimes it’s as simple as having the intention of finishing a song that gets you there. Whether it’s a self-imposed deadline or real one, the more strict you are with yourself, the greater the chance your focus and decision-making process will get you to the finish line. Nothing like a hard stop to clarify your creative process.
Being a songwriter isn’t only about the creative process, it’s also about consistency and follow through. The more songs you complete, the more songs you can ultimately get out in the world and the greater the chance something good will happen. With that in mind, hopefully the above questions will help you finish your existing songs with greater confidence.