Songwriting

How Do I Know When My Song is Finished?

It’s easy to know when you have written a song – it has a beginning, middle and end.  But then you begin the process of re-writing, improving every line until you have a masterpiece.  So, when do you call it “done”?

What Does “Unfinished” Look Like?

Some simple questions to consider:

  • Do you stand behind every line of lyric? Are there any lines of lyric that were simply “good enough” when you wrote them, just holding the place for something better to come along?
  • Does every line in the lyric support the journey towards your title, or payoff line? Every song must deliver a single emotional message, without conflicting lines of lyric.  If some of your lines suggest one thing, and others suggest a contrary idea, you still have some revisions ahead of you.
  • Does your song make sense?
  • Is the title of the song obvious? If not, you’re probably not going to move a listener with your song.
  • Does your song deliver on its intention without relying on production? Could it be performed with a single instrument and voice?  Maybe your production is fantastic, but is the song as good as the production?  A great production should frame a great song.
  • Does your song flow? Are there sections which seem to last longer than they should, or sections which don’t seem to belong there?

What Does “Finished” Look Like?

Think about what your song is trying to do.  You’re trying to evoke a personal response in your listener.  An emotional response.  As a songwriter, it’s not really enough to see that your song makes someone want to dance, for example, because that’s only a reaction to your production or your performance.  With your song, you want to make your listener feel something.

If evoking this emotional response relies on a song introduction to deliver important story, or context, then your song is not finished.  Any details that you feel compelled to share in a song introduction are likely so important to the song that they should exist IN the song.  You won’t always get a chance to explain your song to a listener.

Consult A Live Expert

You might just be too close to your song to know if it’s finished.  You’ve seen the song through some number of revisions, and it becomes very difficult to judge from inside the process.  When you think the song might be finished, it’s time to test it on an expert.

No, I’m not talking about an expert songwriter.  In fact, consulting another songwriter might send you on a wild goose chase, because, let’s face it, every songwriter will take the same song in a different direction.  The right time to consult another songwriter for an opinion is when you feel that your song isn’t complete, but don’t know why you feel that way.

The expert I’m talking about here is a music lover.  Ideally, this is a music lover who is unfamiliar with the song, and at best, unfamiliar with you.  The best opinion on your song will come from a music lover with no pre-existing love for you or your music.  If your song can deliver, to a willing listener whose opinion isn’t influenced by their relationship to you, then you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.  To state it bluntly, MOM IS THE WRONG PERSON TO TELL YOU WHETHER YOUR SONG IS FINISHED.

And it is crucial that you personally experience the reaction of your listener, as they listen to your song.  Sending a recording by email or text message, and waiting for a response, is infinitely less useful to you.  You need to be able to recognize which parts of your song are hitting hard, and you can’t achieve that by completely relying on another person to describe their reaction.

Sometimes, this expert is actually YOU, but you cannot hope to tap into this expertise without actually sharing the song, live, with another person.  A funny thing happens when you personally share a song with another person, whether performed live or played back from a recording.  The act of presenting the song in this way engages a different level of consciousness, allowing you to suddenly be more aware of things in your song that you wish you could change.  Pay attention to those feelings.

Getting Feedback

After you share the song in this vulnerable, possibly painful way:

  • Ask questions designed to find useful answers. “Did you like it?” does not give a useful answer.  “Tell me your favourite words” or “tell me your favourite parts” is much more useful.
  • Ask whether your listener is able to tell you the title of your song.
  • Ask if they can relate to the story in the song. Your song’s emotional value depends on its ability to tap into the personal experience of your listener.
  • Listen closely to how the listener describes their reaction. “That’s a really great singer” says NOTHING about the value of the song itself.  This is why you might get a better response to your songwriting if you present it with a mediocre singer!
  • If they ask where they can go to hear the song again, that’s a really good sign, but again, don’t be confused by a positive response to the performer or the production, if what you’re interested in is the power of the song itself.

Calling It “Finished”

Only YOU are allowed to say when your song is finished.  Take ownership of this decision, and stand behind it.  Then, go ahead and write another great song.

Write On!

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