If you’re anything like me, you may have found yourself coming face to face with another form of writer’s block that can be quite potent in nature. Finishing the song!
Agh! It’s bringing back painful memories as I write this! It can be hard enough getting started on something let alone knowing how to wrap things up, right?
Here’s an example: We’ve started writing our song, we’ve got a great chorus and the first verse does a great job building the narrative both musically and lyrically. We hit the halfway point and all of a sudden, after chorus one comes and goes, we have no idea what’s supposed to come next. Sound familiar?
So, what can we do? As I always say, inaction will only serve to get absolutely nothing done. The more you practice something, the better the skill becomes. This is just as true in songwriting as it is with anything.
Why you should trust me
Here is a list of things you can try to help determine how to finish a song:
1. Choose the length of the song
Deciding how long your song is going to be even before you write a single note can be a powerful first step in working towards its completion.
Knowing how much time you need to fill up can help take a lot of the mystery out of the process and is a powerful way to help you decide on which action to take next.
For example, if I am contracted to write a three-minute long pop or rock tune, I know that I can use the time needed to be filled as creative boundary of sorts. I can use the three minute time frame as a stencil of sorts that I can color in by using any number of variations of a pop based song structure.
Here’s a couple of my go-tos I tend to fall back on the most to fit the three minute mark.
Intro – Verse 1 – Pre Chorus 1 – Chorus 1 – Verse 2 – Pre Chorus 2 – Chorus 2 – Chorus 3.
Verse 1 – Chorus 1 – Verse 2 – Chorus 2 – Bridge – Chorus 3.
Keep in mind: These respective structures can change depending on the tempo of the song. If it’s a slower song, I may feature the intro again after the first chorus. Especially if it has a strong hook I want to reintroduce.
Intro – Verse 1 – Pre Chorus 1 – Chorus 1 – Intro 2 – Verse 2 – Pre Chorus 2 – Chorus 2 – Chorus 3 (using music from the intro).
2. Decide on a specific song structure before you know what’s going to be inside it
Piggybacking off of the previous example a bit, knowing what kind of song structure you’re going to use going in can help make choices faster and keep you out of creative limbo.
Clearly not everything in music falls under a traditional pop style song structure (and good thing because music would get super boring if it did!), so understanding some of the most widely used song structures in music can be incredibly helpful as a template to work from.
Here are just a few to get started along with some songs that use them, but I encourage you to explore them all.
- AAA form. Some popular examples of AAA include “Free Fallin'” by Tom Petty.
- AB form. Some popular examples of ABAB include “Roxane” by The Police, and “My Name is Mud” by Primus. Other examples include “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix, and “Hey Ya!” by OutKast.
- ABC form. Though widely used in a variety of styles, ABABCB is particularly common these days in rock, metal, pop, country and many others. Some popular examples of ABC include “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More, “If I Were a Boy” by Beyonce and “Fix You” by Coldplay.
Do some digging and experiment with these song forms (as well as others) to see which works best for your music.
3. Create harmonic contrast in between your song’s respective sections
Have a happy chorus? Try writing a sad verse to make it stand out that much more. Or vice versa.
A great example of this is the song “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows.
Do you have a chorus at the end of the song that sounds like it needs a little extra something? Try modulating the last chorus to a higher (or lower) key to create a huge emotional shift.
A song that comes to mind that uses this to great effect is “Borders and Shading” from In Flames.
4. Create dynamic shifts in the rhythms in between your song’s respective sections
This is similar to the harmonic contrast I was talking about before but this time, we’ll be applying it to the rhythm section.
Let’s say you have an upbeat, steady drum beat happening during verse one. Think pop-punk in the neighborhood of 167 bpm with the kick on beats “1” and “3” of each measure while the snare is landing on beats “2” and “4”.
Standard stuff right? Let’s say however, that if this beat were to repeat during verse 2, things would get real boring real fast.
A simple way to create a sense of contrast to differentiate verse 2 from verse 1 would be, for example, to shift the drum beat to a halftime feel with the kicks landing only on beat “1” and each snare landing on beat “3” of each measure.
This creates a dramatic shift in how the verse feels and brings a refreshing sense of variety without changing any of the overlying harmony and melody of the other respective instruments.
For audio examples of what I’m talking about, check out this video here:
5. Set a deadline
This might seem like an obvious one but how many times do we as songwriters let projects sit on the shelf due to the fact that we perceive that we have all the time in the world to finish them? I’m still guilty of this.
The solution? Mark your calendar and commit to finishing one song by that date. If you’re not ready for that, allow me to propose a different approach.
Give yourself just three days to write a song.
Sounds crazy right? As someone who loves to take his time with everything, I didn’t think it was possible for me to be able to do this personally. However, after my first year of writing custom songs as a business, I was forced to find creative solutions to deliver high-quality music in a short window of time. Three days to be exact.
Having the pressure of such a tight deadline looming over my head forced me to trust my instincts more and take quicker actions based on them. If I found myself stuck overthinking a specific part, let’s take a chorus lyric for example, I would immediately stop and focus on another aspect of the song instead, a verse melody for example.
Anything that came easily to me to allow the creative momentum to continue. I have been shocked at what has come out as a result of this.
Now to be fair, this is what I do for a living, so having the extra incentive of getting paid for my work certainly helps to center my focus and maybe you’re not in a position like that.
So, how can you create a similar type of pressure to impose on yourself then?
6. Spread the word
What I would suggest is to get vocal about your goals. Tell everyone you know that you plan to finish projects X,Y, and Z by a certain date and ask them to hold you accountable.
Post on social media, send an email out to your audience (if you have one) or better yet, toss up a video on YouTube asking your viewers to hold you to your word.
The fear of letting down your audience can be a great motivator. Not only that, but you’ll feel more accomplished and confident in both your work and your word when you deliver what you said you would. You’ll establish a sense of integrity about yourself.
It’s important to remember that not necessarily everything that you’ll write is going to be amazing, and that’s okay. Crappy ideas will come out but great ones will too.
We as creatives need to learn to allow space for both to emerge and go easy on ourselves when things don’t show up in the way we were expecting. Please have patience with yourself and keep at it! You will be rewarded, I promise.
My hope is that you learn to love the process as much as I do. Much of songwriting can be looked at as a process of filtering out the good ideas from the bad, but we need to be able to turn that creative faucet on in order to get a flow going. We do this by taking a specific action.
As I mentioned above, inaction will only serve to get absolutely nothing done. The more you practice something, the better the skill becomes. Even if you have to force something out in order to tell your brain “Hey, I am able to do this,” that is completely valid and sometimes, necessary.
That being said, if you have an idea that you’ve been sitting on that you absolutely love but you’re being precious with, I totally get it. Perhaps consider setting that idea aside for the time being and start crafting something completely new where the emotional stakes aren’t so high for you.
It is so important to get your “reps” in when it comes to writing songs because the more you hone the skill, the more confident you will be in your ability. You’ll be surprised at what you will be able to bring back from what you’ve learned into those precious ideas.
Thanks for reading!