Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tip: Write more, use less

Here's a secret known by every professional photographer. If you want to have consistently good results, don't take just one shot. In a magazine cover shoot, after everything is perfectly set up and in place, they still might take 100 photos, knowing perfectly well that they only need one and will end up throwing the other 99 away.

This strategy of excess applies to songwriting, too, even though it may be somehow more painful to write a song and then throw it away. A song is almost a living thing; how can you create it and then abandon it? But you'll want to get over those feelings and consider what a huge advantage you gain by a little bit of excess. You can love everything you write, but don't become attached to anything.

If you're recording an album, you never know which song might inexplicably fall apart in the studio. You could try again and again to record it a slightly different ways, and keep tinkering with it until you go over budget, tear your hair out, and lose your confidence in yourself as a musician — or you could just pull your next song out of the folder and say, "Maybe we'll have better luck with this one."

Better yet, for a 12-song album, plan ahead of time to write 30 songs, demo 24 of them, record 16, and release the 12 that come out the best. It's just easier to write more and abandon the ones that fail than it is to rescue the song that goes off track. And if music fans are going to devote money, time, and energy listening to your album, they shouldn't have to suffer through a dud. You shouldn't deliver a song that you feel iffy about.

Write more than you need, and use less than you write.

This applies within a song too. I often write four verses and end up cutting it back to about two-and-a-half verses. When writing funny songs I think of several clever jokes and puns about the song's subject matter, but I never use all of them. The wittiest bit of wordplay might fall the wayside because I just can't get it to fit the rhyme scheme.

While writing music, I often come up with three or four different ways to shape a melody. I eventually settle on the best one and throw the others away.

Fundamentally, it's faster and easier to create more and then prune than it is to create just enough and have to revise and reshape it. Make sure you can create new ideas and material easily and comfortably, and let it be just as easy to cut things out and chop away the parts that don't fit.

Thursday is Tip Day for the Unruly Beast.

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