This is a question that every songwriter has asked themselves at some point. We tool around on our instruments, come up with some sort of chord progression, riff, or lyric, and ask whether what we’ve created is promising or not. Or, we write entire songs that we start to question after being excited during the writing process. How can we know whether or not what we write is good before we share it? And how can we tell the difference between a bad or mediocre idea and a profound one?
The bad news is there aren’t any easy answers. If there were, there’d be far less music out there and fewer artists making music. But the good news is that discernment, experience, and objectivity can help us to put the most time and energy into our best musical ideas and songs.
Discernment is the ability to separate the great from the not-so-great when it comes to music creation. If we only write one melody or chord progression a year, we’ll probably never live long enough to write anything that’s truly exciting and promising. That’s why fully engaging with the songwriting process means taking lots of time to create lots of ideas. The more discerning you are, the better you’ll be able to recognize solid ideas when you hear them. Developing your experience as a songwriter is crucial for building discernment and relying on it for your process.
Objectivity is probably even more important than discernment for prioritizing great ideas over weak or mediocre ones. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be objective. Doing so means fighting off the urge to let the way we see ourselves shape the way we hear the music we make. A specific idea might sound great to you, but would you actually listen to it if you weren’t the person that made it? That’s the question we should be asking ourselves. If you wouldn’t want to listen to it, why would anyone else?
That’s a brutal way to look at music creation, but it’s incredibly helpful. Your time and resources are limited. Every minute you spend developing an idea that goes nowhere or promoting a song that isn’t very good means one less minute for working on music that truly is good. This makes being able to shut “meh” ideas down early on extremely valuable for you as an artist. It’d be convenient if everything we wrote was stellar and had the potential to connect with listeners, but that’s just not the way it works. By embracing objectivity and discernment, we’ll have the best shot at letting our greatest ideas and songs rise to the top.
Unfortunately, even the most experienced, discerning, and objective songwriters get it wrong sometimes. One of the biggest reasons for this is because change, renewal, and risk are things experienced music-makers have to embrace to keep their work fresh and engaging. There are times when we have literally no clue if what we’re making is any good or not, and that’s okay. Maybe better things to focus on in songwriting are joy and authenticity. Even the biggest and most critically acclaimed artists on the planet can’t be sure that what they make will ultimately be appreciated by people or not. The only thing we really have control over as artists is how we engage with music creation. If we’re genuinely loving what we’re doing, that’s a massive endorsement that we’re onto something good. Whether what you create ends up being a part of the soundtrack to people’s lives or not depends on countless factors from the way you promote your music to current trends. This means that you could have a great song on your hands even if no one listens to it. That’s another brutal truth.
All we can do as songwriters is try over and over again to make the best music we can objectively and passionately. If you think you have a great idea brewing, that’s a good start, but it doesn’t mean the world will notice and agree with you. And, conversely, an idea you haven’t thought much about might end up being your most loved and listened to song. Most of the time, there’s no way to tell until you release your work.
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.