Good writers know that editing is often the most important part of the writing process. For every page that makes it into a book, there might be five or 10 pages that don’t. Many songwriters and musicians try to follow the same practice with their songs, but the trouble for many DIY musicians is that they simply don’t have the time or the budget to produce 30 songs for every 10-song album. The question then becomes: How do you determine whether or not it’s worth it to keep spending time (and potentially money for studio time) on a song that feels stuck? How do you decide whether to keep pushing through on a song you’re tired of, or simply ditch it and move on to the next song?
Whether you’re still in the writing process or almost done mixing, here are a few exercises to try with your stuck songs to help you decide which direction to go.
1. Take a break from the song
Sometimes the reason we get frustrated by a song is simply because we’ve been working on it for so long. Just as our ears can adjust to our listening environment after a while and make us hear sounds differently, our ears can also get used to hearing the same song over and over again, which changes how we hear the song. After you’ve listened to the same song ten times in a row, you can no longer approach it as an objective listener.
When you get to this stage, the best thing you can do is set the song for a while and come back to it later. Sometimes all you need to do is take a walk outside for a few minutes to clear your head; other times you may find that you have to set a song aside for a few days before you can hear it properly again.
2. Play the song in a different environment
Changing listening environments is another way to trick yourself into approaching the song with fresh ears. Whether you’re playing the song live or listening to a recording you’re working on, getting outside of your normal songwriting or producing environment will help you get out of critical thinking mode and approach the song as an ordinary listener.
Take note of how you react to the song in other environments. You won’t hear the song as perfectly finished, but as long as you can hear that the song has potential, you’ll get an idea of whether or not it’s a keeper.
3. Play the song for someone else
Artists tend to be terrible judges of their own work. That’s why we need to surround ourselves with people we trust who are willing to give us advice. Just look at what happens when artists have too much control over their own work – George Lucas lost a good deal of his credibility by reworking the original Star Wars films years after their release, and Kanye West will probably continue to remix The Life of Pablo until 2026. Instead of going down that dangerous path, find people in your life to help keep you on track when it comes to judging your own work.
A producer can act as a valuable voice of reason, but sometimes it’s even more helpful to play your song for a non-musical friend with good taste. If there are any technical flaws in your song that you’re getting stuck on (maybe the guitar was too far away when you recorded it, or you recorded the vocal with a cheap microphone), other musicians may get stuck on those flaws as well – but to a non-musician, the only thing that matters is whether or not the song is a good one. Getting access to the perspective of a listener who can judge songs in this way is invaluable.
4. Take the song out of the equation
If you’re tried all of these methods and you still can’t decide what to do with a song, try taking it out of the equation altogether. In other words, take it off the album tracklist and consider it ultimately gone. Do you feel a sense of relief when you set the song aside, or do you miss it? Does your album work well without the song, or is it an essential piece of the puzzle? If you find that you simply can’t live without the song, then maybe it’s worth pushing through the pain to get it done.
All of these exercises are meant to help you regain the feeling of excitement that you experienced when you first started working on the song. If you can’t find that excitement again, then it may be time to ditch the song and move on. Sure, making music doesn’t always have to be fun, but if you’re not excited about what you’re working on, your audience will be able to tell – and the last thing you want is for your listeners to be just as frustrated with your music as you are.
Casey van Wensem is a freelance composer, musician, and writer living in Kelowna, B.C., Canada. You can hear his musical work at birdscompanionmusic.com and read his written work at caseyvanwensemwriting.com.