How To Know When To Give Up On A Song Idea

There’s no one way to write a song. If you’re a songwriter, you’re probably well aware of this fact. But when a musician comes up with a great idea, it can be difficult to remember this when a single idea fails to materialize into a good song. We often love musical ideas so much that we’ll do anything to protect and preserve them, even if it means ultimately wasting our time or sacrificing other ideas that actually work well in a piece of music.

But how do you know when to press forward with an idea and when to bail? This is a question that songwriters and composers have grappled with for as long as music has been around.

Why some musical ideas work and others are black holes

Every songwriter’s brain is unique, so there’s no way to define why some parts in music work and others don’t. If you’ve ever liked an idea but just couldn’t get it to go anywhere––a chorus, riff, solo, drumbeat, song lyric––then that idea is essentially a black hole. Because songs don’t often come fully formed out of the gate, songwriters usually build them one piece at a time. The black hole situation happens when a writer becomes attached to an idea, but it never develops into a song.

In praise of boring musical ideas

It sounds weird to write this, but the boring structural components of music rarely get the credit they deserve. From quarter note bass lines that never deviate from the root of chords to songs built on 3-chord progressions, the unsexy parts of music often serve as the structures that hold up many of the songs we all know and love. Ideas that never fit into the framework of a song are often too big and busy to be able to hold up a piece of music.

How to give up on a musical idea that goes nowhere

It can be painful to abandon a musical idea you really love, even if you know it doesn’t have a future. But the good news is that with recording technology, you never really have to. Rather than forgetting about an idea you’re attached to forever, you can record it and save it to a file on your computer. Sure, right now your idea doesn’t go anywhere, but maybe it will in a month or two. This lets you save your ideas without having to obsess over them and take time from other aspects of your writing. With fresh ears, you’ll be able to determine if your ideas are still worth pursuing.

When to quit

How do you know when to give up on a musical idea? This answer is going to be different from every writer, but focusing on your goals can be a big help. If you’re set on writing songs and recording demos, ideas are worth letting go of or saving for later if they distract you from producing finished songs.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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RebeccaHow To Know When To Give Up On A Song Idea

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  • Jesse - December 5, 2018 reply

    I really like the last part about saving your songs. There are times when a song of years past that was never completed can come back and suddenly make it on a release.

  • Lincoln Ross - December 5, 2018 reply

    Hello Patrick .. thanks for the article .. it’s funny cause I was grappling with this same question recently. Was listening to an old demo and hated it .. plus didn’t know if I wanted to put any more time into it. On one hand it was a challenge but on the other it was like beatin a dead horse.
    Yes we writers put together stuff differently but we have one thing in common .. we fashion the music the way we want to hear it and usually don’t want anybody messin with it :o)…. But even if we put something out that we don’t like that much somebody’s gonna like it anyway and visa versa they may hate what we thought was our best work. The public is funny like that … unpredictable
    Still you are right … knowin’ when to hold ’em and knowin’ when to fold ’em is precisely the dilemma … and hell now that u mention I can think of few great songs about those ideas I wish I had written …
    knowin when to quit ….and/or … givin up too soon … (no easy choice for sure)

  • JayBird - December 6, 2018 reply

    Occasionally, I struggle with ideas that go nowhere. Sometimes, the recording file itself goes nowhere because it has other parts that don’t work. What works for me is deleting the edit file and saving an MP3 anyways for later inspiration. I have reused old riffs or progressions with a different drum beat and got better results.

  • Alouette de Mer (Morgan West) - December 6, 2018 reply

    As a songwriter I’m a midwife. The song exists in the cosmos, and when it’s ready to be born then I will deliver it into the world. To force labor is not a good idea. If you have a fragment of a song then by all means write it and put it in the can. Later it will return to you as part of another song. I wrote the second movement to a wedding song called “The Joining” for which I couldn’t write the first movement, so I put that second movement to the unfinished song in the can. Almost 10 years later I tagged that second movement to the unfinished wedding song onto a Scottish ballad titled “Maralyn” as its second movement. “The Joining” was waiting for its companion song “Maralyn” to be born a decade later. The right mind doesn’t work in linear fashion. And forcing the left brain to be creative can be an arduous and frustrating task. Meditation in a high-alpha brainwave state is an excellent medium through which to liberate the right mind…lucid dreaming. Use a tone generator set to high-alpha and headphones, a darkened room, and no sensory stimulation at all, not even a ceiling fan to distract you by the air blowing on your skin. And then visit your unfinished song and commune with it. It is consciousness just as you are.

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