So many songwriters overthink their music, and it’s easy to understand why. Our songs are judged as good, bad, or forgettable. That judgement can feel personal. So not only do we want to win over audiences, we also want to avoid the pain of criticism. To protect ourselves we seek to make our music perfect.
The problem is that “perfect” is a moving target. If you choose perfection over progress, some of your greatest assets as a music-maker will take a backseat to overthinking. Here are 4 signs that overthinking might be hurting your songwriting process (and how to break free).
1. You’ve lost connection to what you first liked about your song
You’ve probably felt the magic when you first created something — a lyric, a chord progression, a beat — and then felt that magic fade. This is normal! Why? You’ve heard the track a thousand times. There’s no more mysteries waiting for you there. Which can lead to boredom. So you start tweaking the snare drum again; you add more overdubs, hoping to rekindle the magic feeling you’ve lost. Meanwhile you’re killing the arrangement and cluttering the mix.
If you’ve lost connection to what you first liked about your song, try one of these things:
- Set production deadlines that speed up the time between creation and release. The less time that passes, the more confident you may feel.
- Accept that you’ve lost perspective, and trust that listeners will feel the jolt of energy or heartbreak you felt when you first wrote the song.
- Ask for feedback from collaborators or fans. They may confirm your doubts, in which case… you’re not overthinking. But they may say it sounds great. In which case, your work is done!
The key to believing in that initial spark:
Overthinking music sucks the joy out of the process. Don’t kill a good idea by tweaking it to death. Your song may already be finished! Believe in that first burst of inspiration, and set it free. If you don’t believe it yourself, maybe someone else can tell you what you already have is enough.
2. You haven’t broken your project into tasks
Sometimes overthinking can be the result of poor project management.
“Finish the song.”
“Record the album.”
Those are big things! So your mind goes racing miles ahead instead of settling on the NEXT step in the journey.
If you’re having trouble wrapping up a song, track, or album, do the following:
- Break up a big project into constituent tasks, such as “complete verse lyrics,” “decide on a synth sound,” or “finalize the track listing.”
- Organize those tasks into a project management tool like Trello or Asana.
- Distribute the tasks over the following weeks or months, and assign them to specific people (yourself, bandmates, mixing engineer, etc.)
- Give these tasks deadlines, because otherwise you might get distracted by more inspiring tasks.
The key to pushing through project overwhelm:
Sometimes the problem with overthinking is that you’re looking at the whole mountain. Think smaller. Take one step, then another.
3. Strong, simple ideas tend to lose out to more complex ones
When it comes to popular music, listeners often have an immediate response to strong, simple ideas. (Or at least ideas that sound simple). It’s a good chord change because it emotionally moved someone, not because it was a half-diminished to secondary dominant.
Too often, musicians overcomplicate things because they’re insecure, showing off, or focusing on theory and gear instead of hearts and ears. Throwing complexity into the mix when it doesn’t feel
natural won’t do you or your listeners any favors.
If you’re overcomplicating your music, here are some tricks to bring it back to basics:
- Find what was magical about your original demo or voice memo and strip it back to that.
- Mute everything except the vocal and chord instrument; does it work? If not…
- Rewrite the song!
- Ask someone who hasn’t heard the song before to listen, section-by-section, and try singing the parts back to you. If they can’t, the parts might not be simple enough hooks.
- Use Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to prevent your ego from taking control of your creativity.
The key to keeping your music simple:
Much of the time, our best ideas arrive early. Don’t pick the fifth, sixth, or seventh thing if the the first attempt was gold. We need to practice leaving a good thing alone.
4. You second-guess every step of the songwriting process
It’s good to have high standards and a lot of ambition in songwriting, but again, things will never be “perfect.” Sometimes when doubt creeps into every decision, it’s because we need outside perspective.
If you’re struggling with creative insecurity:
- Find a collaborator who can offset any of your creative weaknesses with their musical strengths. or even offset some of our creative deficiencies by adding their own musical talents.
- Share your music on apps like BandLab and SoundCloud to solicit feedback.
- Enlist expert help from a mixing engineer, producer, or session musician.
The key to greater songwriting confidence:
Making music can be a solitary endeavor. But it can also be a team effort. Sometimes we need others to show us the way. Giving up total creative control can also ease our fear.
If you’ve been overthinking your songwriting or production, hopefully this helps you make progress.
Remember, songs can be strong, striking, devastating, beautiful, unforgettable, but they’ll never be “perfect.” So strive to make music you’d want to listen to yourself. Begin writing from that place. Meet doubt and insecurity with curiosity and openness. Try your hardest to finish everything you write, even if you know you won’t use the song. This gets you in the habit of finishing what you start, and it allows you to hear fully formed versions of your music so you can decide what works best in your creative process moving forward.