Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How Do You Know When You're Done?

A little while back, a reader wrote me requesting that I write an article on how to know when you're done with a song.  To people who aren't musicians, this might seem like a silly question.  It's done when it's done, right?

But if you've been making music for awhile, you probably can relate to that feeling of anxiety wondering if your song is fine as is, or if it needs some extra bit to gel it all together.   This is actually a very serious problem for many musicians.  It's easy to become obsessed with the song you're working on and falling into that trap of "this sounds great, but think of how much greater it would sound if there was more?"

The best advice I can give here is to play the song in question for another human being.  Not just any human being, mind you.  You need someone who will be straight with you and not worry about hurting your feelings.  Significant others are usually a bad choice.  If you're anything like me, that first listen to one of your songs when another person is in the room is completely different from when you're listening to it in the safety of your studio or headphones.  Almost every musician friend I have, when they're playing me something they're working on, has to precede playing the track with a short speech explaining all the things that will be fixed in the final version.  I do it, too, even though I know better.

But if you can play your music for another unbiased person without making excuses or suddenly hearing a million and one changes you need to make, your song is done.  That doesn't mean it's a good song, or even that another listener will consider it done, but if you are at peace with how something sounds the first time you play it for another person, bets are good, it's where it needs to be for whatever your current abilities are as a songwriter.

Better still, is the next stage, when you hear material you worked on a couple years ago and you're embarrassed by how bad it sounds to your ears.  Your standards will evolve with your skills.  And that's how you get better.


Anonymous said...

awesome post, tom. i really hate that first listen haha but it is actually a really good litmus test

Anonymous said...

I think it was Kurosawa who once said, "a film is never finished, only abandoned". I wonder if the same can be said for a song ?

Adam Dubbleu said...

Yes, they call it mnml. :-P

John said...

Nice post, and a good way to call a song done. The first 95% of a song is the easy part - it's the last 5% that sucks up months of creative energy to get it just a tiny bit better