A Classic Song Finishing Tool – The ‘To Do’ List

In the realm of personal management it doesn’t get any more basic than the humble to-do list. But for me this little fella has made all the difference between a song getting lost in development hell and actually making it across the finish line.

What I’ve come to realise is this –

First we get inspired. Then we have to work hard. Things that don’t work are big and obvious and we give it all we’ve got to find solutions. We work on song vision, we fit the parts together. Finally all that’s left is to tidy up & smooth the rough edges. And that’s where we can easily get bogged down.

When I’m inspired, I’m mostly writing ‘by feel’ – sensing this chord or that phrase feels right. And eventually what remains are the few minor parts that bug me. It’s tempting to wait for inspiration to strike again. But it probably won’t. I’ve come up with every alternative there is and I just have to pick one. The song is 98% there. Whatever I decide won’t affect the song that much. But waiting to lightening to strike a 3rd time will. I’ll get bored, lose interest, lose perspective and then lose my faith in the song completely.

That’s where to to-do list comes in. I’m learning to create an inventory of all the decisions left to make, and then one by one MAKE THEM. By a process of elimination, drawing straws, asking your people to vote, doing ‘eeny meeny miney mo’. Whatever. Just make a decision already!

For example, here was my to-do list for my song Brother Bull –

1) Stick with the original structure, drop the 5th verse or move the 5th verse and drop a chorus?

I just played the options through. I knew the original was too long – that’s what was bugging me. But I didn’t want to lose a verse I liked and the narrative shape was nice.

So I turned v5 into verse 3 and dropped a chorus. I played it all the way through and it felt OK.

*Update July 2013 – during the mixing of the Let’s Build An Airport EP I hit this issue again and for the sake of not letting the song drag I cut the verse 3 (aka the verse formerly known as verse 5 and another chorus). Read about the process here.

2) soft as her skin/cheek/face/neck/breast/thigh/back/arm/throat/smile?

I had brainstormed every possible body part for this line (plus a few others we won’t mention) and none were great. But I wasn’t going to come up with a better idea. So I sang the line with every possible word in turn.

The original line (soft as her skin) wasn’t very…well…original, but I liked the way it ‘sang’ and I figured that a song built on such a weird premise (A love song that consists of asking various animals to donate body parts) could stand one line that was too normal.

3) pockets are bursting with/pockets hold nothing but

The questions were “do I want to change the chorus the last time around?” & “will ‘bursting’ sing OK?”

Answer: Yes and yes.

4) Gm or Bb?

and

5) F or F/A?

all through the writing process I’d been switching back and forth between these chord versions in numerous places in the song. But now I was done and it was time to nail things down. Just make a decision already!

I was uncomfortable with singing a G over a Bb chord rather than a Gm, but, emboldened by the example of John Lennon I decided to go for it.

What’s preventing your current song from being finished? Try drawing up a list and working through it as cold bloodedly as if you were doing the laundry or servicing your car. Let me know how you get on.

Download my free single Let’s Build An Airport

About mattblick

Songwriter/Singer from Nottingham, UK. My 2nd EP, Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky, is out now. I'm blogging (& podcasting) through the entire Beatles catalogue at Beatles Songwriting Academy. In my spare time I wish I had some spare time.
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  • Curtis Pea

    You made good points here! I get stuck at ending a section or the song. For instance, in key of Fm for a bridge I wasn’t sure sure if I should’ve ended the section with a Cm, Ab, Fm, or even the Picardy third F, but the latter would’ve been a lot worse since it would clash with the verse since F also starts off the verse. So I thought as long as I didn’t use the Picardy thirs, I would be okay. I went with Cm because I couldn’t decide between the others. And turned out not so bad as I thought!

    Another case would be ending the song, so I had plenty of ways doing this. Using the flat six (Db) to root, minor 4 (Bbm) to root, V7 (C7) to root, a combination of flat six and flat third (Ab) to root, a combination of flat six and flat two (Gb) to root, or the Alloeian Cadence (Dm). I chose the minor 4 because I couldn’t decide on the others and I figured it’s been a while I used in a song, and it sounded nice, why not?

    Another case would be coming up with a guitar riff that needed an ending to a verse. and there were so many ways to end it with, C to Bb, C to D, C to G, C to F. I chose C to Bb, because it felt more “safe” than the others, especially F and G.

    But yeah I will definitely try this to do list that you suggested and see if it helps.