Songwriting – The Myth of Perfection

When you write a song, don’t try to be too perfect from the first line. No matter “how good or bad or ugly you think it is”, it can help you move on to writing a better next line, next song, next album. This is a great tip from Jeffrey Pepper Rodger’s book The Complete Singer-Songwriter.

One of the hardest think when writing a song is to keep going, and not to throw it out because it’s ‘not good enough’. I’m sure I’m not the only one with hundreds of sticky notes with possible phrases, lines or recording snippets sitting around being prematurely dismissed. Sometimes I think I’m never going to finish a song, and it’s difficult to decide when a song fragment is ‘going somewhere’, and when it’s just a little playing around for fun and that was it.

Tracy Chapman once said in an interview:

Songwriting is a very mysterious process. I’m never sure if: 1) I’ll ever write another song, 2) what the song will be about and 3) if what initially sparked the beginning of a song might complete it. Some things remain fragments, just the lyrics and melodies or a line or two or a verse.

You need half-baked concepts

Jeffrey Pepper Rodger‘s book The Complete Singer-Songwriter has some interesting thoughts on this that I found helpful. In chapter 1, titled The First Verse, he writes that the first step for all songwriters is “imitation, the half-baked concepts, the nice-try experiments, the can’t-figure-out-what-else-rhymes, the lumbering melodies”. Only when you get through this phase, you can get to the songs you really want to write.

That phase of uncertainty is actually indispensable because you learn from bad songs or fragments, you try something else each time, and you gradually get better. “Behind every songwriter’s best work lies a long trail of lesser tunes that did their job and can be retired from the repertoire”, writes Rodgers.

But how do you know which is which? When should I keep re-writing a song, and which are the fragments that will remain fragments forever? Rodgers quotes country singer-songwriter Jewel:

There are a lot of songs I’ve written that aren’t very good, and all you can do is put out what’s honest and keep going and developing with time and just focus on development more than anything

This means that if you’re not sure what’s good and what’s just the pre-phase of a good song, Rodgers recommends going to gigs to get an “assessment of their songs square against reality”. It might be that you are completely into a song, but the audience is just bored. I’ve found that whenever I played in front of an audience or friends they seemed to like my up-beat songs more, while I was feeling much more emotionally engaged with my mellow songs. Never did I think that a rather silly song about my fantasy man would be more memorable than a heart-rending story about a break-up.

Turn fragments into lots of tiny songs

What I take away from Rodgers then is that I want to turn lines and fragments into very short songs, maybe even including repeated verses, and try them out on friends. Then I can invest more time into those that ‘passed the test’ and polish the lyrics and overall composition.

I like Rodger’s tip that the pre-phase is the important and necessary step. Missteps and detours are necessary to get to a beautiful, polished and finished song in the end. “The greatest songwriters are actually the ones who never arrive at that mythical place of artistic satisfaction.”



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2 thoughts on “Songwriting – The Myth of Perfection

  1. Thanks for the post, Nicole, and best of luck with the music. JPR

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