If you’re an active songwriter, it’s safe to assume you have a lot of unfinished ideas rolling around inside your brain taking up space on your hard drives. We think if we write a ton of music, we’ll eventually stumble on a couple ideas that are really good, and this is true. However, there’s one important caveat that often gets left out of this conversation. Without transforming your ideas into finished songs, you’ll make it harder to write your best music and reach your full potential as a songwriter.
Why it’s worth it to finish all your ideas––even the bad ones
Songwriting isn’t a pursuit for the faint of heart, but you already knew that. It can be grueling, thankless, and frustrating. If you want to succeed in this game, you’ll need to cultivate lots of resilience and discipline, the sort of willpower that keeps you working when you don’t want to. A major part of this gritty approach to writing music is finishing what you start. It’s easy to begin songs and often hard to complete them. Following through builds your experience as a songwriter and allows you to hear a song in its entirety, and there’s a lot of value in this.
Random beats, song lyrics, chord progressions, synth riffs, and bass lines don’t carry the same musical and creative currency that an entire demo does. Midway through a song, you might decide that you don’t like what you’re working on, or that you’re simply not inspired enough to follow through. But if you make the effort to finish what you’re working on, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing and hearing how everything in the music you’re working on ties together, develops, and resolves. In the worst-case scenario, doing this is helpful for your songwriting experience and work ethic. But in the best case, the idea you weren’t sure of midway through its development might actually be a great song.
Your perception of your unfinished songs might be wrong
One of the best reasons to finish all of your songs is because you might have some promising music on your hands and not even know it. Some ideas are just plain bad. We all know that. But other ideas could be incredible with a little development and tweaking. This is why finishing what you start is so important. We often think we know the entire story behind a song before we’re done writing it, and that’s just not true. At any given time, there are endless creative paths we can take with our music. By refusing to give up on a song, you give it the chance it needs to develop into something unique and profound.
What it means to “finish” a song
The process of finishing a song for you could include a professional recording, production, and mastering. Or, on the other side of the coin, it could be as basic as recording a quick demo on your smartphone. There are no rules for transforming vague ideas into completed music other than assigning a set structure and flow to a song. You’ll need a chord progression and some sort of melody most likely at the very least. This is different from creating random parts of music that don’t tie together. What makes an idea “completed” more or less is cohesion. While it takes work to finish songs, it doesn’t have to be anything like the process of recording a song for an album. You can think of bare bones recordings of your songs as demos, and having lots of them is a huge asset for a serious songwriter. The major benefit to having lots of them recorded and easy to access is being able to have lots of choices to mull over when it comes time to pick songs for a new album. Developing the discipline and follow-through you need to complete songs now will pay off throughout your music career in huge ways.
Write as often as you can, and finish what you start. If you build a songwriting practice that allows for these things to happen, you’ll be on your way to meeting your creative potential as a songwriter.
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.