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7 Mistakes Keeping Smart Songwriters from Finishing Songs

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7 Mistakes Keeping Smart Songwriters from Finishing Songs

Do you make these songwriting mistakes?

They're common and clichΓ©...and I've made every single one of them.

And they could be holding you back from finishing songs.

Songwriting Mistake #1 – Writing the music first

This one's controversial. It's not like you can't write a song from the music first. But when the lyrics are an afterthought, it's much harder.

Most songwriters are musicians first. They know how to play an instrument and sometimes they can sing. So they come up with lots of ideas at their instrument or while singing.

But then they have to turn it into a song. That's where they get stuck.

It's much easier to start with a lyrical concept and then write the music around that. Every songwriter I've coached to do it this way has agreed with me.

Musical ideas to a musician are a dime a dozen. Lyrical ideas and song concepts separate the great from the good.

Songwriting Mistake #2 - Not having a song plot

Somehow, you have to keep a listener's attention for a few minutes. Your music and groove hooks them in the beginning but your lyrics keep the average listener's attention the rest of the way.

Again, you're probably a musician first. So you think and listen musically. Listeners aren't always musicians and they listen to what they know best, the words.

Having a song plot keeps your listener connected to the story and big idea. A song plot provides contrast between sections so they don't get bored. A song plot helps your second verse develop differently than the first so your listener notices and pays attention.

A single song plot can generate an infinite number of songs.

Here are 10 song plots to inspire your songwriting right now...

Songwriting Mistake #3 - Not having a clear idea of what to do next

When I critique the workflow of songwriters who aren't productive, we always find moments when they don't know what to do next.

That's when they try to either power through it or switch to doing something else. Neither strategy works 9 out of 10 times.

Forcing inspiration is like forcing the sun to shine. It shines when it damn well pleases. Switching to do something else is really just a form of procrastination.

When you know every action required to complete a song, knowing what to do next is a very simple decision.

Songwriting Mistake #4 - Rejecting formulas

The smartest songwriters want to be original. That's an important goal but unless you're plagiarizing, you can't help but be original. No other song will be exactly like yours.

Understand exactly what it means to be original and unique. It doesn't mean that you have to reject any and all ideas that came before you.

You still use the same notes, chords, and words that every other musician has access to. Using chord progressions and other musical patterns that already exist is similar to using sentences and paragraphs when writing.

Structures and patterns in nature exist. Don't fight them. Play with them.

Songwriting Mistake #5 - Not listening to music outside your genre

If you really want to be original, then you need to open your mind to ideas different than yours.

Nobody likes a hater. I have a friend who likes saying crazy things like the Beatles and Eric Clapton are overrated. I always jab back, "it's better than not being rated at all."

Humility wins when working with other people. Being cocky can be funny when it's lighthearted, but it can also be downright mean and shortsighted.

Be a sponge. Listen without judgment. Critical listening is perfectly acceptable. But so is acceptance and understanding. You'll only expand your musical experience by listening outside your comfort zone.

Songwriting Mistake #6 - Editing too much and too soon

I don't edit until the end. I grab ideas fast and loose in the early stages. Don't worry about capturing cliches or finding the perfect tone.

Don't destroy the creative flow by using the editor's mind.

Stream of consciousness works best. Set your mind on an idea and write it out without judgment.

When you have a lot of material to work with, you can put on the arranger's hat and shape it and decide what to keep and what to throw away. Put your editor's hat on at the very end when you need to get detailed, like improving verbs for power and tone.

Songwriting Mistake #7 - Never finishing a bad song

You're gonna write some stinkers. But there is always a good idea in there that you can steal for the next thing or something down the line. All is not lost by writing a bad song.

Finishing a bad song won't take long if you correct some of your mistakes. And the confidence that comes from completing something outweighs the time it takes to create it, even if it ends up being thrown away.

I used to sit on great ideas because I could tell that they wouldn't come out perfect. I could have used those ideas down the road but I shelved them, thinking I would salvage the song someday.

Now, I finish everything fast and steal what works. That's how you build an enormous swipe file that never runs dry.

In the Speed Songwriting System, I take people through an 8 week process finishing 2 or more songs a week. By the end, an album's worth of music later, even if only a few of the songs are keepers, the rest are rungs on the ladder to much better writing.

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22 Responses to 7 Mistakes Keeping Smart Songwriters from Finishing Songs

  1. [email protected] October 2, 2014 at 5:11 PM #

    Good stuff. I've made EVERY mistake on this list.

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:43 AM #

      I could probably add another 100 mistakes to the list! πŸ™‚

  2. Maurice Davis January 9, 2015 at 12:30 PM #

    Wow, Thanks for all your help.

  3. Marty Parker January 17, 2015 at 6:24 PM #

    I'd like to add one more mistake. Don't write the verse before the chorus, I've written some killer verses, and didn't have the hook first. what a mess, work your butt off and more than not in my case,the hooks end up weaker, trying to make them work with the verse. I have managed to save some of those songs, but man, don't put yourself through that lol

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:39 AM #

      Great tip, Marty! Thanks for sharing.

    • MUSICALE LTD. June 18, 2015 at 6:08 PM #

      totally agree with all items; i have songs at this moment i feel could be great, but the hook and the verse are incongruous, and it's painful to determine which should take precedence. i'll have a hook that sets up the plot, but marrying the verses sometimes excruciatingly difficult....alas

  4. Jeffrey Harker February 15, 2015 at 3:50 PM #

    Yep, I see myself in a bunch of these... particularly the bit about doing something new, just procrastination. Thanks Graham, keep it coming!

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:35 AM #

      Pretty sure I buy new gear just to procrastinate learning how to use the old gear! πŸ˜‰

  5. James Pidgeon April 12, 2015 at 12:07 PM #

    Great points! I was drummer in high school. I was under the impression that guitar and piano was a must to write songs. For me the words come first. The lyric has always been my thing.
    My producer tells me to use my writing instincts. I think your editing too soon...is a problem I
    have...I was dragging my feet on a song for weeks...I keep all the ideas 'till the end and finished the song...worked great! In the studio this Monday to record the demo...Thanks!!!

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:26 AM #

      I've known some really good songwriters who were drummers. Rhythm is key! I've got some more tips for the "editing too soon" problem that I'll be posting soon. Keep on the lookout and keep sharing your success! Thanks! πŸ™‚

  6. Daniel B. Alcutt August 10, 2015 at 12:03 AM #

    Excellent advice. Yes, on the chorus 1st idea, editing too soon, walking away from songs you can't seem to like and expand your genre base. It will be extremely inspirational. I have been a drummer for 50+ years, but I fell off a ladder in 2007 and life changed. It took me a couple years to stop pitying myself and staying very angry over my loss of learned ability. But, one day I decided to purchase 2 guitars, a piano, Logic Pro system with Apple computer works and I sat in my garage for months on end and just improvised over and over again, until it made sense to me. At 60, I finally enrolled in a 12 week Theory MasterClass and I now believe that becoming disabled has been the best situation to happen to me to improve my overall music knowledge. There is so much more to music than rhythm, but when you have rhythm down, the rest is a blast making it become entrenched in your heart and mind. Thank you for all the good advice you have shared with us. It has been a great assistance to me. I look forward to following you for more of the kind.

    • Graham English August 12, 2015 at 9:26 AM #

      Amazing story! And we have an interesting connection! I broke my back in a fall in my early 20s and while I was laid up, I used the time to focus really hard on my music. Just like you. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for sharing, Daniel!

  7. Dan Donch December 31, 2015 at 10:09 PM #

    Thanks for the advice. I have almost always written the lyrics while or after the music, but the last song and some of the best lyrics of other songs I've written have been without listening to or playing along with the music. Like writing a poem,it works. Note that the general tune was jammed on though. I knew which song the lyrics would be for.

  8. [email protected] February 22, 2016 at 1:24 PM #

    Kinda feels pretty good to know how many people are going through the same thing and I'm not the only one struggling with this, about to get in the studio and put this to work, thanks a ton Graham, motivated!

  9. Chris May 12, 2016 at 10:51 AM #

    I keep coming back to your advice. I've made all these mistakes for 14 years and have been aware of it. It helps having someone (outside of my head) point these out with solutions.

  10. [email protected] June 4, 2016 at 1:06 PM #

    Gotta remember Chorus first.

  11. [email protected] July 6, 2016 at 5:06 PM #

    I was a drummer for 12+ years and only started to learn how to play the base guitar in my 60s... Yeah, I'm an old guy... But, I have been writing lyrics for more than 50+ years and wrote my first song at age 18... BUT never sent it to anybody as I was embarrassed... So, I have written dozens of songs with all kinds of genre... I have a lot of education behind me and am used to lecturing to audiences so I am rarely at a loss for words... That makes lyrics easy... But, I AM NOT a musician...! That is a huge stumbling block for me... I mean, you send me a subject and I can write a song for it in about 30min to an hour... BUT whomever wants the song is going to have to put the music to it... The ideas are in my head but they don't come out as notes... Just words... Advice, please...?

    • Graham English October 20, 2016 at 8:40 AM #

      Find a co-writer! Lots of musicians have trouble writing lyrics. If that's your strength, then you'll have little trouble finding a co-writer.

  12. [email protected] September 2, 2016 at 4:57 PM #

    I find that I write from both perspectives from time to time...sometimes music first and sometimes a complete lyric first. Sometimes the chorus first complete with music and sometimes starting from the first verse out. Usually after I have the first verse written I am writing words to music for the rest of the song anyway. I took a course at Berklee online that was writing lyrics to an already composed melody and I think it is a very good exercise. Richard Rodgers wrote music first and than Hart wrote the lyric. I can't see the harm in doing it as many ways as you can and you never know you might wake up one morning with the melody to a song like "Yesterday" and all you will have to do is write a great lyric and you will have a number one on your hands. Just my opinion. Have fun writing!!!

  13. Kenny February 15, 2017 at 6:20 PM #

    i throw together the music then i listen to it over and over and over again for days then i get some lyrics in my head to it and jot them down, And they actually sound ok and lots of people i know and dont know like them mostly. But its the old chestnut. I never finish them n move onto another one. Ive got probably 6 really decent songs out of absolutely loads but THEIR STILL UNFINISHED. I find after being away from them for a while. few weeks. u lose the feel to them and they lie dormant in my ableton sessions. So frustrating. Ide love to go to a studio and get them done properly but I just aint finishing them! The thing to do would be get a band together. My problem is lack of interest in my social circle for people with musical interests in playing instruments.

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