How To Get Over Perfectionism In Writing MusicSep 04, 2021
It’s great to have high standards. We want to achieve greatness at our craft, not adequacy.
But sometimes high standards can morph into destructive perfectionism. Sometimes destructive perfectionism is masquerading around as high standards.
Either way, we can (and probably at some point, will) fall victim to it.
So what is destructive perfectionism?
It’s when your perfectionism begins to become a hindrance to your creativity.
If you aren’t making much progress on your songs because you feel the need to write it perfectly the first time, you have fallen victim to destructive perfectionism.
If you refuse to move on to another song or another part of a song while writing or recording, you have fallen victim to destructive perfectionism.
Let’s talk about how to combat this if we’re going through it and habits to form to ensure we don’t fall victim to it easily in the future.
Getting It Right The First Time
The first step is accepting you won’t get it right the first time.
Once in a great while, a miracle happens. Milk and honey rain from the sky (Chocolate milk obviously), everyone admires you as a person and an artist, and the Patriots lose the Super Bowl.
But, for every other day, you won’t get it right the first time.
I’m a software developer by day, and we always joke about how rare it is that something we develop works right the first time.
Sure, by time the user sees it for the first time, it probably mostly works. But, behind closed doors, that was after the developer worked out the kinks in his code for a while.
Songwriting should be seen the same way. We shouldn’t even expect to ever get it right the first time. Sure, we should try to get it right, but we shouldn’t be putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves.
A great way to solve this issue is to use something else prevalent in the world of software- an iterative process.
Basically, you keep making small changes on the same thing, making it a bit better each time.
You don’t try to write the whole song perfectly the first time. The first time you just write.
Write 20 terrible verses you will never use. Write a bunch of terrible piano riffs. Write a bunch of yawn-inducing chord progressions. Don’t even worry about it. Just let the creativity flow.
Next time you go over the song, figure out what parts had potential and which parts are just junk. Maybe write some more. Or take that time to refine some parts that have potential.
Eventually you’ll have a chorus, a couple verses, and a bridge (or whatever your song structure becomes). But maybe you aren’t happy with your second verse still. A line or two just doesn’t seem quite right. So you keep working at that verse, making a bit better each time you touch it.
Eventually you will get there.
There are SO many benefits to this iterative process. One is the huge pressure release. There is something so freeing about writing whatever comes to mind.
If you aren’t worried about getting it perfect the first time, you can write so much. And there will often be good stuff in there!
Another benefit of this process is that you get to refine over time. This allows for you to have patience with your process and allows you to make constant progress.
Instead of trying to write the perfect verse the first time, you change a couple words or lines at a time, making it 1% better at each pass-through.
This constant progress is important for the obvious reason of progress being good as well as the psychological win it provides. It’s super demoralizing to sit down to write and write NOTHING for an hour.
But making a couple lines just a bit better or writing a bunch of crappy lyrics still gives you a psychological win. Progress inspires you to keep going.
Refuse To Move On Until You Get Something Perfect
Let’s say you look in the mirror and decide it’s time to start working out. You don’t want to be single any more and those biceps aren’t impressing the ladies.
So what do you do?
Do you do bicep workouts every day for 3 months until they are looking good? And then do 3 months of just triceps and pecs to get them tight-t-shirt-ready?
No, that would be insane. You cycle between all the different muscle groups. You may split it by exercise or by day (don’t be that guy that skips leg day), but you show all the different muscle groups some love.
You can’t just relentlessly train your biceps. They need a break. They get tired. Not to mention how awkward it would look to have massive biceps and no triceps, legs, abs, or chest muscle.
Songwriting is the same. Some days your brain can’t really work on that sad love song. You had a good day. You’re feeling on top of the world and “don’t need no *significant-other-who-left-you*”.
On those days, you want other types of songs you can work on. Some days you’ll get massive progress after 30 minutes on one type of song and no progress after 2 hours writing another.
Other days it will be just the opposite. So don’t be afraid to pivot to one song or another. Don’t obsess over finishing a certain song. Let your creative mood sway what you work on.
I’ve mentioned the value of working on many different songs at once before, but it truly is one of the most valuable lessons in songwriting productivity. It can only help you to increase the backlog of songs you’re currently working on.
Finally, don’t be afraid to just take a break. If you can’t get the lead guitar recording quite right, or you just can’t get that dreaded second verse to work, don’t be afraid to take a step back. Take a breath.
Maybe come back to it tomorrow. There are plenty of other songs to work on today.
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