How to be Objective When Songwriting
I would say one of the most unspoken skills of a great songwriter is learning how to be objective about your own songs. This can be hard because when you are creating any piece of work it can feel like it’s your baby. You can get personally attached to it and see it with rose colored glasses that don’t let you see the song’s strengths and weaknesses.
How do we get through this and stay objective?
I’m going to tell you a few things that personally work for me.
There are several tools and approaches that can help maintain objectivity during songwriting. Some of these include learning the fundamentals of good songwriting, learning the fundamentals of arrangement mixing and production, getting feedback from trusted songwriters, working with a producer that understands your genre, exploring other music scenes and styles, accepting the songs flaws during the writing process, taking a break, and listening to what the song is asking for.
Learn The Fundamentals Of Good Songwriting
While there are no rules in music per se, there’s certainly guidelines for how to write effectively within your genre. You’ll notice many similarities in the songs of many top artists. Things like good song structure, good arrangement, good song dynamics, using hooks, the instruments sound like they support and talk to each other rather than playing separately, etc. These are all things that make good songwriting across any genre.
How does this help you stay objective when making songs? Let’s say you have 3 ideas for a song (verse, chorus and a bridge) and you put them together but the song doesn’t sound like it flows well. You might think it’s a bad song when maybe all it needs is for the order of ideas to be switched up. Maybe your verse idea makes for a better chorus because it’s catchier. So it wasn’t a bad song, it just needed to be arranged in a way that supports good song structure and good song dynamics. These are fundamentals of good songwriting.
Knowing the fundamentals will help you see things with a lens of what works and what doesn’t, instead of what is good or bad. This is how you stay objective.
If you want to read more about what makes good songwriting check out this post that talks specifically about that, What Makes Good Songwriting?
Learn The Fundamentals Of Arrangement, Mixing And Production
Just like with the fundamentals of songwriting, this will help you stay objective by allowing you to see what is working and what isn’t.
For example, if your song always has the spotlight on the guitar, it might not leave room for the other instruments to be interesting as well because they will have to do very basic things to avoid clashing.
Then you might hear the song later and feel like something is missing and like it sounds the same the whole time. You could be sitting there thinking it’s a bad song when it really just needed to be arranged in a way where all the instruments get a chance to shine so the spotlight gets passed around and the listener doesn’t get bored only hearing the guitar doing flashy things the entire song. This is an arrangement and production matter.
On the other hand maybe you think your song lacks power because it sounds thin. Maybe all your instruments are doing mid rangey stuff for too long and the bass never really gets very low or has any pauses, so the song doesn’t have parts where it thickens and drops out. Knowing a bit about mixing and frequency range might help you notice this issue and correct it simply by changing the bass parts up a bit so they vary. It wasn’t a bad song, it was just not taking advantage of all the options.
You don’t have to be an audio engineer or a full blown producer but knowing the fields in general will help you visualize how the song could sound as an end result, and this will definitely affect how you write and arrange.
Get Feedback From Other Songwriters You Trust
You know when you have problems you have that one wise and down to earth person you ask for advice? The one that’s gonna give you something solid because they know you and they know what your goals are? They can give you an objective point of view on your situation.
Well in songwriting it helps to have trusted people that you can ask for feedback to stay objective about your songs, but rather than wisdom in life they need to have wisdom in your genre and in songwriting. They need to know you and what you’re going for with your music and be able to visualize what you’re going for, even if the song isn’t quite there yet.
They can help you stay objective about your songs because they will have a fresh ear and perspective. So they can probably see why your song isn’t sounding the way you want it to and tell you what you’re doing wrong.
Maybe you wanted something that sounded latin and you used a salsa beat but what you wanted was more of a cumbia feel. If you have some musician friends that play those styles they could probably point it out. But only someone who understands what you’re going for and knows the music genre could tell you that. A regular person might just say that it sounds off.
Also, many times you can get a fresh look on a song just by showing it to a friend and assessing the songwriting as you show it to someone. There’s something about showing it to another person that can give you a fresh perspective too. Don’t ask me why, I’m just saying this has happened to me and other musicians I know.
Work With A Producer That Understands Your Genre
Expanding on the last point, the best case scenario is having an actual producer that understands your genre. They will be able to tell you all kinds of things you never would have thought of about the songwriting, production and more. They’ll also be able to call out parts of the song that need more work than you thought. Keep your cool and at least listen to what they have to say.
Of course not everyone has access to a producer let alone one in your genre. What you could do is to write and produce your songs as best you can in a demo, then look for the mixers and producers of the artists you take influence from and hit them up for both mixing and producing your songs.
This will likely cost quite a bit if they are higher level but it could literally be the difference between an ok song and your best work. Not to mention all you will learn from working with them.
Of course keep your expectations realistic, you’re probably not going to be able to even reach, let alone afford, Nirvana’s mixers and producers, but maybe you can do it with smaller artists that are at a more reasonable level. Worst case scenario, ask them for a reference to someone else that could be a good fit for you to work with.
Explore Other Music Scenes And Styles
One of the best ways to stay objective when songwriting is to have a wide scope of different styles of music. This serves as a palette cleanser for when you are writing your own songs.
Ever go to a metal show and notice between bands the DJ will play other kinds of music? Maybe it’s Bee Gees or Pop music. This is to keep people from getting saturated with the same music and leaving.
For songwriting, palette cleansers help you keep a fresh perspective on your own songs so you can stay objective. So if you are getting saturated and overwhelmed just listen to something else for a while and it might help you clear your ears. It can also show you different elements you can bring into your songs from other genres to spice things up.
Be Ok With Your Song Sucking While You Work On It
I’ve had times when I have a song idea I like but I don’t know where to take it or what to do with it.
It really helps to just start throwing things at it and see what sticks. During this time there are times when I don’t really know if what I am adding sounds good. Being objective starts to become difficult.
In the past, this uncertainty has caused a great amount of overanalysis because I want every adjustment to be impressive and dramatically elevate the song, and that has led me to change things that didn’t need to be changed out of fear that what I’m doing sucks.
So a breakthrough moment for me was to be ok with the song sucking while it’s in progress. “Of course it’s not going to sound like a final version, if it was, it would be finished”.
So it’s ok if parts of your song sound empty, don’t have smooth transitions from one song section to the next, there’s placeholder ideas that are underdeveloped, there’s chord progressions where some of the chords don’t flow, etc. For the time being, it’s ok. Just get something to work with first, and then worry about making it sound good.
This mentality can help you stay objective by taming your emotions when criticizing your own work. This way you’re not making yourself feel bad about how the song is going, and you can stay aware of the parts that you know need work.
It’s kind of like carving a statue, you carve big simple blocks and slowly add details over time, and sometimes it’s linear and others not so much. You might have one section that’s more defined than others. That’s cool too.
The second important part of this is – DO NOT listen to the song too much! Because you want to avoid getting used to the underdeveloped parts, to the point that you desensitize yourself to the improvements that need to be made.
If you listen to the song too much you will get used to hearing it a certain way.
Some people call this Demoitis (as in Demo-itis). You get used to hearing the demo version and you start to fall in love with it even though it sounds incomplete and underdeveloped, simply because you’ve heard it that way so much.
Avoid this at all costs by listening to your song frugally during your songwriting process. Keep a fresh perspective.
Take A Break
If you are getting writer’s block and start to get obsessive about your song, it can start to consume you. Your overanalysis might start to really kick your ass and you will end up going on an endless cycle of song rewrites. Been there many times.
What I have found really helps with this is to know the few song ideas you want to commit to and if you start to be consumed by overanalysis, take a break. This could be a few hours, a few days, I’ve gone weeks and months without touching a song.
Sometimes my break means I shift my attention to a different song, and sometimes it means I do things that have absolutely nothing to do with music, but make me feel good, like going to the gym, having a self care day, going on a trip, or doing something that gets me out of my comfort zone like going out to see bands alone and talking to new people.
This break can help to clear your head and give you a fresh perspective when you go back to your song.
Do What The Song Asks For – Simple Can Be Good Too
A big sign that you are dealing with a pro in music is that they do what the song asks for and don’t try to force their ideas into it when it doesn’t work or doesn’t fit.
So a good way to stay objective in your songwriting is to pretend that this is someone else’s song and listen to it as a fan and listen to the direction the song is taking, where it wants to go and what it needs.
Is there a buildup? Maybe you can put an epic huge part after or do a drop, depending on the context of the whole song.
Is the song staying in one rhythm in the verse and chorus? Maybe the bridge calls for a different rhythm.
Sometimes songs can write themselves in this way, and it’s important to listen and go with the flow. This also means that if the song asks for something simple and unimpressive, sometimes that is what you need to highlight the parts that ARE meant to have something more complex and hold the spotlight.
Wrapping it up
Being objective is a challenge for all songwriters, but rather than seeing it as an issue to overcome, it’s easier to see it as a balance to maintain. The balance is to love and enjoy what you’re writing, while also being able to see the flaws and adjust accordingly (without over-correcting).
So this is really not something you ever get over, but rather learn to manage.
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