Stuck On A Song: How to Finish that Composition

Q: I’m struggling with some new compositions. I have some solid parts I like, but overall I feel that the melody or changes (or both) don’t work everywhere in the tune. It also feels that it may need more movement. How do you approach fine-tuning a tune?

A: While I have written and arranged music, most of my experience is in fine tuning arrangements in the studio.

Here are a few things you might try:

1. Try and listen to your music objectively.

This is not easy. I recommend taking a break from it for a time. Put a demo of the tune – even just the changes and melody will work – on your music listening device – and listen to it while you walk, drive, etc. Listen to it as just another tune in your collection instead of your own creation. You may hear it differently and notice what you like and don’t like about this section or that section. You might be surprised how ideas come to you outside the studio.

2. Play the music with others, and record it.

When you perform with other musicians, it will feel much different once you let them add their own mojo to it. Once again, this will be good for listening to it objectively for a few days, as in the previous tip. Sometimes it is best to try and keep the music simple in some respects and let the musicians add their own voices to it.

3. Separate your melody and chord changes.

By this I mean to play just the melody by itself (I often find that it helps if I sing it as well) and see if the melody you’ve written is moving naturally. You may find that you’ll discover that when separating the melody from the changes and/or bass line, you actually want the melody to do something else here and there. When this happens, you may reconsider your changes to suit the melody, especially if there is a clash or you’re not digging the interplay between the two.

The opposite can be true as well. It often takes quite a bit of back and forth between the changes, bass line and melody to really strike that golden balance.

4. Don’t feel as though you have to have the tune perfect or complete before letting people listen.

Share your work-in-progress with friends and ask them for their honest opinions and constructive criticism.

5. Don’t throw away an idea because you think it might not be great.

Finish each piece of music you start, and then start another. You can always go back and refine, but don’t let frustration drive you away from the process. Embrace each tune you end up “filing away” as a learning experience, and celebrate each tune that makes it through for the success that it is.

There is much to be learned in the struggle as there is in the success, if not more. Keep writing, and keep asking questions like this one!

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