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.