Every songwriter has had the experience of getting sucked into a creative rabbit hole while working on a specific musical idea. If we’re lucky, momentary frustration leads to creative resourcefulness. Sometimes a great song is waiting for us at the end, but it doesn’t always turn out that way. In many instances, it’s best to quit working on an idea before we invest too much time into it. We can then save our time and energy for better songs. The hard part is knowing exactly when to stop and why. Every songwriter’s process is different. If you are in one of these situations while working on a song, it might be time to move on to something else:
It’s not memorable
If your idea doesn’t have staying power with you, then it has little chance of resonating with your audience. For some artists, this means putting the work into creating infectious melodies and beats. For others, it’s about crafting unique production aesthetics and meaningful lyrics. But regardless of your identity, if your idea doesn’t stick with you after you work on it, it could be a sign that it’s not worth finishing. If you haven’t done the hard work of nailing down what makes your music unique and memorable, it’s worth thinking about as you try to separate ideas worth pursuing from ones you shouldn’t.
You wouldn’t want to listen to it
If you wouldn’t want to listen to your idea, there’s a good chance others wouldn’t want to either. Your idea might be technically brilliant, masterfully performed, and even obnoxiously catchy, but that doesn’t mean it’s listenable. Defining what makes music listenable deserves its own blog. But think about what it means for you by nailing down specific features that draw you into other artists’ music. If you’ve been toiling over an idea for weeks, months, or years and it’s still not something you find yourself wanting to hear, it’s probably time to give it up.
It doesn’t go anywhere
One of the most frustrating songwriting scenarios is the dreaded verse, bridge, or chorus that never quite resolves or develops into something bigger. If you’ve managed to write one great section of a song but can’t seem to build it out into a finished idea, it makes sense why you’d want to keep working on it for as long as it takes. Unfortunately, songwriting isn’t something where artists can simply exchange their time for good ideas. Your idea could lead to a dead-end no matter what you do. Before you waste too much time on something, try to think critically about what you’re doing by asking if what you’re working on has the potential to become a finished song or not.
It feels forced
There’s a massive difference between putting the hard work into your songwriting practice and forcing ideas to become finished songs. Believe it or not, the creative process is actually quite a fragile thing. By rushing or forcing ideas, they’ll end up suffering for it. If you don’t have the attention span or inspiration to work on an idea, consider hitting the pause button on it and picking it up later. If it still feels like you’re forcing the work when you pick things up again, it’s most likely a sign that you’ve got a dead-end idea on your hands.
You dread working on it
Songwriting isn’t something any of us will feel 100% excited and enthused about all of the time. But it’s a bad sign if the thought of working on a specific song fills you with dread. Creating music takes a great deal of innovative and problem-solving energy. Yet, it gives musicians something powerful in return. Making music is instantaneously fun and creatively rewarding for songwriters throughout most or all parts of the creative process. Yes, there are often times when the rewarding side of music takes a back seat while working on something tricky. However, if you’ve never felt genuine joy creating a piece of music, it could be because the music just isn’t worth paying attention to.
Giving up on an idea goes against what many musicians are taught, which is the idea that if we just keep going, we’ll succeed. In reality, we only have so much time and energy to devote to our music, so letting go of ideas is crucial for making time to focus on songs that have the most potential.
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.