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"When Is A Song Finished?"

tunesmithth

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There are as many answers to that question as there are songwriters.

The reason for that is simple. There is no definitely correct way to write a song!

 

Art is universally understood to be a subjective medium. Every artist creates differently - every consumer interprets differently.

To call that vague is an understatement! Perhaps Webster’s should add “art” as one of its’ official definitions for the word “vague”? :rolleyes:

But for creators of art, that vagueness is both a blessing and a curse.

 

The blessing part is fairly obvious. If there are no absolutes governing creation, then the artist can’t make a mistake…right?

With no strict rules, whatever decisions we make are viable…at least in theory.

And from a creative standpoint, that is truly a blessing!

It means the artist has complete creative freedom! They begin their process with nothing & end it with their interpretation of a finished work.

 

Unfortunately, that same freedom endlessly complicates the creative process.

The question asked by the title of this article is merely one example of that.

“When Is A Song Finished”?

How does a songwriter go about making that decision?

 

Chances are, unless you are a songwriter, that question has never occurred to you. That’s one of the reasons I chose this topic.

Hopefully, those of you who don’t write will get a glimpse of what’s behind our mysterious creative curtain.

 

For purposes of the article, the term “song” refers to just the essential elements (lyrics, melody & single instrument accompaniment).

Believe it or not, complexities multiply 1,000-fold once you factor in variables like arrangement & production.

Honestly, I can feel myself growing older just thinking about it! ;)

 

So, with only 3 song elements to consider, how complicated could this process be?

You write some words, a melody for those words & plug-in a backing chord structure.

Simple enough, right?

Yep!

Right up to the point where the writer begins reassessing & fine tuning their work...a necessary part of the process. 

 

·  Is the meaning/intent of my lyric clear?

 

·  Will the average listener understand what my song’s about?

 

·  Does the lyrical rhyme scheme work well? Does it contain enough rhymes, or too many? In either case, does it work well with my chosen subject matter, or detract from the message & mood I’m trying to convey?

 

·  Does my lyric have a solid, memorable hook? In other words, does it contain a word or phrase that’s catchy, repetitive & will stick in the listener’s head after the song has ended?

 

·  Are all my verse sections solid, or should I rewrite the 3rd? It seems weaker than the rest.

 

·  Is my title catchy? Will it be easy for people to remember? Is it short enough? Does it effectively convey what my song’s about?

 

·  Will other people find my lyric interesting? If not, why not? Does it have wide-ranging appeal, or target a specific listener demographic? Should I change something to make it easier to identify with?

 

·  Does the lyrical meter (feel & flow) sound natural when it’s sung? If not, what should I change…the lyrical meter or the way in which it’s sung?

 

·  Does the melody work well with my supporting chord structure? “Melody” is the most important of those 3 song elements, so nothing should be allowed to interfere-with or detract-from its’ effectiveness.

 

·  Are both musical elements a good match for my lyric? Do all 3 point the listener in the same direction? Do they complement one another, or conflict?

 

·  Should I add a bridge section to the song? If so, what type & where should it be placed within the existing structure?

 

·  Is the song too long? If so, what can I remove without disturbing the integrity of the overall piece?

 

·  Does my song flow naturally from section- to-section, or is the change from verse-to-chorus too abrupt? Should I have written pre-chorus sections, rather than trying to move directly from verse-to-chorus?

   If it’s not a major issue, might it be address in the arrangement phase, by adding a musical interlude?

 

By now, some of you may be thinking…is he serious?

Totally!

None of these questions are far-fetched. They represent merely the-tip-of-the songwriting iceberg.

This internal battle we wage is a necessary part of the process.

 

But sooner or later, a song has to reach the point of completion….doesn’t it?

So, the real question becomes, how much of this examining process should we allow ourselves to do?

At what point does it cease being useful & become a neurotic exercise in futility?

Once again, there is no single answer. Each writer’s process is different.

 

For me, the process became manageable once I learned to define, control & embrace my own version of it.

That’s right, I took the time to…

· examine my process

· consider my specific goals & motivations as a writer

· make realistic assessments of my up-front expectations, the tools I had to work with & my available time.

Keeping in mind that there is no such thing as “the perfect song”, I made some simple decisions.

·  I weighed what I was willing & able to put into a project, against my expectations for the end result.

·  I tried to achieve a balance between what I was willing to accept & what it would take to get me there.

From that, my version of this process was born.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped viewing songs as finished or unfinished.

I prefer to see them as works-in-progress, at various stages of development.

“Finished” has come to mean “finished for now”.

Because I also recognize the importance of re-writing, I never rule out the possibility of returning to a project at a later time.  

 

I'll close this out with a piece of advice for novice songwriters.

Do yourself a favor…figure out what your version of “finished” is going to be.

If you wait for inspiration, intuition or divine intervention to decide for you, you could be waiting a very long time:blush:

 

Happy writing everyone!

 

Tom Hoffman
"About Me" Muse Member pg.

Tune-Smith.com

Tom Hoffman YouTube



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I don't think a song is ever "finished" either. I just stop working on it.

 

But even then (when I have stopped consciously working on it), it can change.

 

I have found that songs either get played or get dumped. Those that are dumped are certainly "finished" (at least for now). Songs that get played, however, have this trick they play on me in which they get subtly altered over time. It may be word tweaks, it may be how I play them, it may be phrasing or tempo - it may be anything but, especially if I have been playing the song live for a while, I find that the song has changed and I only notice if I listen back to a recording I made back when it was fresh.

 

Works in progress. Yes indeed. I agree.

 

 

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I know a lot of guys who have said a song is finished when they find themselves making the same back and forth 0.5dB tweaks to it. 

Me, I'll have a battle between the song's quality and my continuing interest in it. But when I'm working on a song (that I like), I find that when I go to sleep at night, ideas come. If I stop getting ideas, then that's generally a sign that I just need to finish the technical aspects and wrap it up. 

 

EDIT: 
"Because I also recognize the importance of re-writing, I never rule out the possibility of returning to a project at a later time."

Well put. 

 

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Hi T

 

  I think it depends on what or who the song is being written for as far as being a finished product or work of art. I can see where a songwriter pitches a song to management and though it may seem finished, the manager or artist(s) says, it needs a sure fire intro, or it lacks a signature sound like a double guitar lick or drum solo or even a primal scream. Granted the latter may be more in the arrangement arena, but the questions abound on whether the true end is being met along with the artistic tangibles. Okay, that sounded like gibberish and over stated manure.lol

 

   I guess as a novice artist myself, most of the time when I complete a song, I feel a sense of relief. Because on the way to writing the finished song I had to tackle the dreaded lyric cycle a song goes through until Im blue in the face. It's very rare that Ive revisited a "done" song to correct anything other than maybe doing a different version or a different arrangement to further enhance or just have an alternative version of the song like the Beatles did with "Revolution".

 

   There's only 2 songs that come to mind that I did change something later on in the song after I had deemed them "done". One was my current song on my Tad Strange site called "Loser" . In the third verse, there's a line that I sing "Go find the girl who wrecked my life". Now reading it, the line sounds fine, but the word "the" kinda trips me up singing wise cuz it seems lost in the phrasing. So when I sung it again in the band recording (The Fine Print Disclaimers) I added a simple word "me" just before the word "the" and it sounded more natural. (Go find me the girl who wrecked my life) Grammar wise it may seem odd, but Im not writing high brow stuff either.lol :)

 

   The second song that comes to mind that I revisited and changed is on my Tad Strange site too called "High Water Mark". This one just started out as a 2 verse/2 chorus styled song called "Dance". Short and sweet " in the moment" type song ( the way I like to write them) and it ended on an extended note fade out. Fine, I was done with it. Basically a song about a kid asking a girl to dance. whoopi! lol

 

      Later I recorded a second version of it and for what ever reason I felt like I could extend on the subject I was singing about. With this extended note ending, I was able to use it as a back drop to the beginning of the new song idea I came up with. So section 1 was a bout a kid asking a girl to dance, now section 2 was post-dance and him watching her leave and his fondness for her in one sweeping crush. So, I was almost happy just to leave it there, but again I left the song on an extended note and built yet another section to the song being section 3. Section 3 became basically a reflection of what all just happened. Again, message wise I hadnt come to a conclusive end and maybe I had bit off more than I could chew here. So I wandered into yet another section, section 4 , but it didnt break any new ground here other than to confirm how he felt about her. So I soldiered on to write yet another section and basically it's just an awakening of what being in love could feel like. ta dah! :)

 

  Again, I was artistically inspired by the Beatles  Abbey Road on this one, where they splice a bunch of songs together, but in contrast I had a running theme through it much like 10ccs "Une Nuit A Paris" parts 1,2,and 3.

 

  So, when is a song done? If you can hear it every time and feel good about it. :)

 

cheers

R-N-R Jim

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4 hours ago, Alistair S said:

I don't think a song is ever "finished" either. I just stop working on it.

 

But even then (when I have stopped consciously working on it), it can change.

 

I have found that songs either get played or get dumped. Those that are dumped are certainly "finished" (at least for now). Songs that get played, however, have this trick they play on me in which they get subtly altered over time. It may be word tweaks, it may be how I play them, it may be phrasing or tempo - it may be anything but, especially if I have been playing the song live for a while, I find that the song has changed and I only notice if I listen back to a recording I made back when it was fresh.

 

Works in progress. Yes indeed. I agree.

 

 

If our songs are our children (and sometimes they feel that way) then it only makes sense that they will change, over time, as we get more familiar with them. Our own lives go on in between so a song can be finished if we never see it again but remain perpetually unfinished the longer we stay intimate with it. 

 

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  I think it depends on what or who the song is being written for as far as being a finished product or work of art. I can see where a songwriter pitches a song to management and though it may seem finished, the manager or artist(s) says, it needs a sure fire intro, or it lacks a signature sound like a double guitar lick or drum solo or even a primal scream. Granted the latter may be more in the arrangement arena, but the questions abound on whether the true end is being met along with the artistic tangibles.

I absolutely agree...intended purpose makes a difference! 

Perhaps I should have included more specifics about my personal circumstances, but I figured the article was lengthy as it was. ;)

I'll insert a few details here...

 

I'm a 20 years+ hobbyist singer-songwriter, so the article's written from the perspective of a dedicated amateur.

  • I don't write for publishing call-outs, I'm not paid for my work & I rarely face any type of deadline...other than a self-imposed one. Bottom line - I write because I wish-to and because I can.
  • I operate 100% on-my-own...always have, so there is no shared ownership of material. Since all rights belong to me, decisions about when projects are "finished" are mine to make. No one else's judgement, rights-of-ownership or personal standards factor in.

BTW your feedback & personal perspectives are much appreciated folks!

That's exactly what I hope for when I write something like this.

With any luck, someone finds this collection of viewpoints useful in developing their own process. :D

 

Tom

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Tom - do you actually ask yourself those 13 questions when you write a song, or is more 'this is how my head evaluates a song I'm writing'?

 

For me, a song is finished with when I record it in it's final form, or when it goes on the 'maybe later' pile.  Occasionally, it gets recorded THEN thrown on the 'maybe later' pile! Once I've recorded the song, its usually (99% of the time) done, and the only changes will be how I adapt it for live performance. Those rare 1% occurrences are when I was unhappy with the final results (maybe the '13 questions' didn't get answered satisfactorily), I've sometimes gone back and rewritten the song in some way.

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Tom - do you actually ask yourself those 13 questions when you write a song, or is more 'this is how my head evaluates a song I'm writing'?

Nope...no checklist for me Mike. ;)

Over the years, I've learned to trust my ears. 

My process of evaluation is more subconscious these days.

The specific questions were intended as a learning tool...for those unfamiliar with the process.

 

...appreciate the comment & additional information! 

 

Tom 

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