The situation of when a great new idea runs into a wall is all too familiar for serious songwriters. For countless reasons it can feel difficult or even impossible to finish a song, even if you love where it’s headed. Sometimes, it takes a couple days, hours, or weeks to realize that a promising song just isn’t worth finishing. But for the ones that are, but just aren’t there yet, you’ll need to find strategies for how to move forward and wrap things up. Here are five ways to finish songs:
Take a walk
Whether it’s a 30-minute stroll around the neighborhood or a grueling mountain hike, getting outside away from your studio is a good way to clear your mind and start thinking about your song in a new way. We usually don’t know the full story about our songs and their potential until they’re finished, and briefly stepping away from them gives us new perspectives and ideas for how to get there. When all else fails, step away from the DAW, instrument, band, or studio, and give your song some space.
Change up the structure
Sometimes songs need to be structurally changed to be heard the right way. Major changes in structure also help to unlock ideas, reveal places in the music that lack interest, and show the best way for moving forward. This strategy might show you that all your song needed was a rearrangement, or that entire sections of it need to be cut and rewritten. If you’re set on ending up with the best song possible, don’t be afraid to do the work by cutting out parts that aren’t rewarding to listen to.
Identify why you’re stuck and experiment with ways to make it better
Maybe it’s a mediocre melody you’re stuck with or a chord progression that doesn’t give you enough melodic options. Nail down why you’re not finishing your song and then try everything you can to fix it. It’s important to note that doing this might blow up your song completely and leave you with just one or two elements from the original idea you actually liked. That’s okay as long as you like the direction it’s headed in. Don’t commit to setting ideas in stone too soon because you’ll potentially need to transform them or cut them out altogether.
Listen to great music
Taking breaks to experience music from other artists that inspire you is a great way to unlock ideas and move forward. You might hear an instrumental approach you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, or new inspiration for writing melodies, drum beats, or chord progressions. It’s easy to get caught up in the world of our own songs and forget there are other ways to write music. Listen to other ideas and ask what makes them good and how you can create similar experiences in your own song.
Change the key or tempo
Extreme or even slight changes in the tempo of your song can give your song an entirely new feel and shake loose what it needs to be finished. Key changes can also do this in an even more profound way. That’s because sticking with the original key might limit possibilities for vocal and instrumental melodies, and moving to another tonality can show you different ways forward.
If you love your idea, it can be a hard sell to make major changes to it. But not being willing to try new directions could leave your song in permanent demo status indefinitely. You can always save or remember old directions for your songs if you need to, but you may not be able to finish them without trying out new things, embracing risk and curiosity, and ultimately moving in a different direction. Letting go of control might be the exact thing your song needs to move forward and be completed. If you’re not finished with a song you’re truly passionate about, don’t be afraid to try new things and cut out parts of your ideas that aren’t working. If your song just can’t seem to wrap up, there’s probably a good reason why. What you do now will determine whether it wraps up and meets its potential or not.
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.