If you are a songwriter then perhaps like me you have a folder (real or digital) full of ideas. Many of them will be half finished songs that started off in your mind as a work of genius and ended up making you want to never hear it again.
You are not alone, but there is hope for those songs that you think are lost without ever being completed, here are 5 ideas to help rescue a tired song.
Change The Key
I recall a great story by a producer friend of mine who was working on a debut album for a young songwriter. He said that every time the song writer played a song he would ask him what key the song was in. He would reply that the song was in the key of G, in fact he said this about every song he had written, However my producer friend could hear that the songs had differing keys and confused by this he asked the young writer to show him the chords on his guitar. He got out his guitar and promptly put a capo on the neck and started playing a G chord. It's a funny story but it does illustrate something I found to sometimes be a life saver, that is when trying to nail a song try changing the key.
I'm not talking about changing the key so that the vocalist can hit the notes, but because when you change the key of a song something magical happens. Some songs sound great in the key of G and other songs in Bb, or D, or A... I can't remember how many times a song has turned the corner simply by changing the key.
There's some science, some history and some psychological reasons for why some music sounds better in certain keys, partly to do with how some instruments respond to certain notes, musical scales throughout history and around the world, as well as our own unconscious pitch memory that is linked to other music.
That's the wonder of a capo or the transpose button on a keyboard, if you want to try out a new key then you can do it in an instant. Try it, you'll find something special happens when you change the key of certain songs.
Don't Let Chords Box You In
This one is especially for guitar players but can apply to anyone. Writing a melody whilst playing the chords is a standard way of writing a song, however if you are not careful it can limit the melodic structure of the song. Most mornings I walk my dog on one of the beaches close to my home in Ireland and often song ideas will come into my head. I use my iPhone and a simple recorder app to capture those ideas simply by singing the melody into the it, often accompanied by the sound of waves and the wind. What you find when you sing the melody is that both the chords and the rhythm go to places that you may not get to when you are playing along with the chords.
I find this with one of the songwriters I'm working with at the moment, the same chords keep appearing in the songs, not intentionally but by force of habit. When that happens I tell them to put the guitar down and carry on writing with just their voice - you'll be surprised how much of a difference it can make. It also helps to create interesting arrangements as you fit the chords around the melody afterwards.
Not the drugs... but the tempo! If you have a ballad that's going nowhere then you might find it's a great track when sped up, conversely you might have an idea around a 140bpm loop and find that when you drop it to 80bpm you have a beautiful ballad.
Like chords, loops and beats can help the songwriting process, but they can also box an idea in and kill it dead before you've been able to explore different tempo ideas.
Change The Instrument
I'm fortunate enough to be able to play both guitar and keyboards, neither to perfection but both well enough for the craft of songwriting. The girl I'm currently writing with writes on the guitar and brings all her ideas in that way. I'll often move onto the piano to see where we can take the song, one advantage right away is the ability to be able to change notes in the bass hand, or create descending scales, all possible on the guitar but not as easy and the effect is not always apparent either.
Again, moving a song from a piano to the guitar can often have the same effect, neither one is better than the other, simply different and in some cases one will give a better outcome on the idea you are trying to thrash out.
You may not be writing on either a piano or a guitar and in that case you might find your compositions informed by that, again try using different instruments when writing to help unlock an idea.
Having other people to write with can be a blessing or a curse. The outcome is partly determined by the expectations and boundaries agreed at the outset, without these there may be a lack of both vision to get the job done and trust to allow for the opportunity to critique one another.
Having trusted collaborators who can tell you when an idea is worth fighting for or when an idea needs to be forgotten is worth it's weight in gold.
I recall when I was younger having a guy come to my studio to try and write some songs together - we'd been working for around 5 hours and nothing was happening, he suddenly said 'you don't like any of my ideas.' He was right I didn't and so trying to plough on regardless would have been pointless. He packed up his stuff and left and we never spoke again. I'm sure we weren't destined to become the next Lennon and McCartney so I've not lost sleep over it, I'm sure he hasn't either. One point to make is that you may be in a band and one of you may be the primary song writer, others may want to try and write, but rarely is a great band is not made up of great songwriters. In an interview with Melody Maker in 1979 Sting said "Musically, I thought Stewart's ideas were shit," The Police were a hugely successful band mostly powered by the songs of Sting. Don't confuse a band with a songwriting collaboration, they are not always the same thing.
You can't collaborate with everyone, but if you find good writing partners then they can take both you and your songs to another level.
Feeling you have the seed of a great song but not being able to bring it to full term can be frustrating, but often a simple change of methodology or technique can yield some surprising results.
Those are my 5 tips, what are yours?