Songwriting is a creative pursuit where it’s easy to get tricked into thinking that more is better––more production, more vocals, more complexity, etc. And, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s also tempting to leave ideas undeveloped and lacking direction by trying to keep things simple and straightforward. Before DAWs became an integral songwriting tool, deciding how much or how little to add to a song wasn’t nearly as challenging. Much of the time those choices were made for songwriters depending on the size of an artist’s band and their budget. But now that anyone making music has a virtually endless array of digital instrumental and production possibilities at their fingertips at any given moment, the minimalist vs. extreme dilemma is something many of us have to grapple with as modern music-makers.
How do we know when we’re getting it wrong? The truth is that there’s no easy answer here because every songwriter works in different ways and makes different works. However, there are some universal ideas we can look to avoid underdeveloping our music or making it too busy.
Avoiding extreme and minimalist traps in songwriting
There are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to overly relying on extremes in songwriting, whether it’s covering up a mediocre idea with lots of production assets or drowning out a great one with superfluous instrumentation, distracting dynamics, or intense tempos. There absolutely are places where extremes are useful in music, especially for certain genres. But if you’re in the habit of turning to them when you don’t know what to do with your music for each and every one of your songs, the pronounced emotional experience you’re trying to convey might just translate as distracting noise.
The minimalist approach can be just as bad. Keeping ideas too sparse or not adding more instrumentation and production when it’s needed can leave a song sounding far from its true potential. As songwriters, we undercook ideas because we’re eager to finish songs or because we aren’t willing to give them the resources they need to develop and flourish.
But whether we’re faced with overloading ideas or underdeveloping them, the answer to avoiding both traps is the same. By approaching your music with patience and discernment, you’ll be able to bring your songs to their full potential. Patience gives you time and space to let ideas develop naturally on their own. As opposed to finishing songs as quickly as possible or piling on instruments and production and hoping for the best, being patient will allow you to consider other options and explore different creative directions. Discernment is key for deciding whether an idea needs a minimalist approach or lots of production and instrumentation, or, most likely, something in between. By giving yourself time to fully flesh out ideas and asking honestly whether what you’re making is strong and compelling, you can avoid doing too much or too little with your songs. One of the best things you can for your music is to explore ideas freely and in an unrushed way. Forget about minimalism or extremes for a minute and purely focus on following an idea where it naturally goes. If you can do this, knowing how to further develop ideas through instrumentation and production gets a lot easier.
If you’re genuinely excited about the direction of an idea, you probably don’t have to alter it much with extra instrumentation and production. But it’s also worth trying out different musical directions and approaches with your music to see what fits the best. It all depends on your unique process, but remember that just because you record something a certain way doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it forever. Working with extremes on one specific approach might show you that that’s the wrong direction or that it was exactly what your idea needed, but you won’t know until you try. And the good news is that it’s easy on your DAW to mute tracks and deactivate effects until you get to the barebones of your idea, so it’s always easy to get back to a minimalist direction. The key is to try things, be willing to fail, and hang in there long enough until your idea is exactly where you want it to be.
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.