Why it feels hard finishing songs - and how you can make it easier

Diana de Cabarrus

How to finish more of your songs

I've never met a single songwriter who found that they were able to finish every single song they started. I've had many experiences myself of starting an idea that I liked, and taking months or even years to finish a song. I’ve never met any musician or songwriter who didn’t have folders full of fragments of lyrical or musical ideas.

When you're trying to finish the song, the difficulty feels specific to you and the topic. It feels like your struggle is to do with your capabilities, and this particular piece of work.

Cast your mind back to your experience at school. Can you remember being set an assignment that everyone in the class had to complete? In a classroom setting, we'd all expect to see students moving at different speeds. After all, it’s a learning environment.

But often we approach songwriting as if we should be able to start with line 1 of a song and write through to the end. If we can’t do that, well maybe that means we are not good at songwriting.

When we get stuck, we usually take that as a sign that a) our idea was not actually a good idea for a song (if it had been, we would have been able to complete it). Or b) we may not be good at songwriting.

Sure, occasionally an idea for a song may not be workable. But much, much more often our idea is fine and it would be possible to finish the song. It’s just that we don’t know how to define and thus fix the reason we got stuck.

The best-case scenario here is that we keep trying until we find a way to finish the song that works. If that happens, we got past the problem in that particular song, but we are likely to run into the same issue again soon. Then what? At the very least, it’s going to take a lot of trial and error experimenting to keep going, and that requires a lot of time and energy.

Or, worse: we abandon the song, and feel sucky about our abilities. We may even give up on songwriting altogether.

There are two main reasons it feels hard to finish a song:


Until we finish a new song or album, it might be the best thing we’ve ever written, or the best thing anyone’s ever written. Dolly Parton or James Hetfield or Beyonce might sing it at the Super Bowl. But once it exists, it’s not that fantasy realm any more. There’s also something a little bit painful about accepting a reality over a fantasy.

And what if we do a thing and receive a bad response? We all like to think we’re reasonable adults who can hack the fact people have different tastes. But most of us don’t enjoy rejection. You can’t be criticised if you don’t put anything out there.

The solution here is to acknowledge these emotions if they arise, but decide that they will not dictate your actions.

Knowledge/Craft - understanding why we got stuck

If I’m driving a car and it stops working, I have 2 ways to define that problem: I ran out of gas, or the car is faulty. I don’t have enough knowledge to identify the problem in any more detail. I certainly can’t fix something I can’t even identify.

This is like ‘my song idea was no good, or I am no good at songwriting’.

If I were on a desert island, I would have to throw that car in the bin, (the car-sized bin that conveniently exists on the desert island) because I can’t fix it. Even if it needs only one tiny new part like a washer replaced. This is like throwing the song in the bin because we can’t finish it.

But no one would say ‘oh well, I guess that car sucks’ and throw out their car without taking it to a garage first. Cars are expensive. It might not cost you a ton of money if you do or don't finish your song, but it costs in time and energy.

When we are writing a song, two processes are in play even if we aren’t aware of them. We are generating possibilities and options (for melodies, chords, lyrics, rhythm). Then we are making decisions and narrowing the options down. Sometimes this happens without us noticing. Most of us have spontaneously hummed something over some chords, experimenting until we got a sequence we liked. We tried things out, we kept some things and discarded others.

When we get stuck, 90% of the time it’s because we aren't able to define the element that's not working. We may also lack good techniques for fixing the element that doesn't work.

Good news: there are many, many effective ways to generate lots of options for lyrics, chords, melodies and rhythms. These techniques are simple to use and anyone can learn them.

For example, ’second verse syndrome’ is a common sticking point - often because we stated our main idea in the first verse and now we don’t know what else to say about it. We haven’t left ourselves room to build.

A solution for this can be to move the content from the first verse to later in the song, and create new content for the first verse that sets the scene. Don’t talk about the relationship that’s ended and how painful that feels right away in the first verse before the listener has a reason to care. Introduce the characters and set the scene. Then when you come to express the painful emotions, they can be evoked for the listener too.

Another strategy for a second verse is to introduce a different point of view - like a new camera angle on a scene. Our understanding is enriched by new information.

When you understand how each part of the song can create an experience for the listener, it's easier to finish songs.

I’ve covered some common reasons why it feels hard to finish songs. But we are all individuals. There are aspects of your creativity that are unique to you. Understanding those in more depth will help liberate you to complete more songs.

I have created a four-video series to help you do this. It will go deeper into the reasons we get stuck and what the solutions are. It will help you define why you specifically get stuck. I will also walk you through some techniques to help you both start and finish your songs. These are repeatable ideas you can use again and again.

After you watch the videos, you'll understand more about your attitudes to songwriting. You’ll have strategies to get unstuck and ways to get ideas.

I also share something that was one of the big game-changers for me: categories of language. This will help you write lyrics that create an experience for the listener. If you don’t know what these are yet, you’re in a great position because it’s something you can use to level up your writing straight away.

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