Song Critiques: Why You Need Them, Why You Should Do Them
There are two crucial steps that many amateur songwriters overlook in their quest to improve their craft and take their songs to the next level. First, they fail to subject their songs to a critique by other songwriters, and second, they fail to critique their peers’ songs. Many songwriters are also singers and/or musicians, and often spend months or even years studying music and practicing their instrument of choice. But when it comes to the art and practice of songwriting, many potential songwriters don’t realize that the same amount of study will improve their ability to write great songs. That ability can be honed, in part, by having your songs critiqued and critiquing others’ songs.
Why You Should Have Your Songs Critiqued by Other Songwriters
It will save you time, money, and energy. Before you shell out big bucks to get a song professionally recorded, or before you even present it to a wider audience, it’s important to run it by other people. If your song is not getting the response you would like, there is likely some work that still needs to be done. If you are made aware of your song’s weak spots, you can find solutions to make it stronger. One person’s opinion is easy to dismiss, but if three or more people all point out an aspect of your song that they believe makes it weak, you should pay attention. No song is perfect, but even your best songs can be tweaked and finessed before you invest in having them professionally recorded, mixed, mastered, and distributed. Plus, you’ll discover that different people often have radically different opinions about your song – knowing what kind of people appreciate your work will help you focus your promotional efforts better.
Your song is being compared to professional works. When you are presented as a songwriter to a wider audience, the expectations are a lot higher. Anytime you play a gig (even an open mic) or submit your song to someone in the music industry for consideration, your song is being compared to professional songs in the audience’s mind. Professional songs released by a record label have already been scrutinized and reworked – sometimes by dozens of people – before they are marketed to the general public. You usually only have one opportunity to catch someone’s attention with your song. If people don’t like what they hear the first time around, they won’t bother to tell you why, or suffer listening through revised editions. You’ll simply be ignored and left to sort out on your own why your work is not commanding more positive attention.
You are biased about your own work. You naturally “critique” your own song as you go through the process of taking it from a nebulous idea to what you consider to be its completed form. You tweak your melody, edit your lyrics, and basically make sure you’re not embarrassed by your own work. But you have a blind spot when it comes to your song: it may have taken you hours, days, weeks, months, or even years to write it. You may have agonized over the perfect lyrical phrasing, the best chord progression to fit your melody, and whether or not to include a harmonica solo or a gospel choir between the chorus and the bridge. Any shortcomings your song has will be subconsciously diminished in your mind by how hard you have worked on it. You also know exactly how you felt and what you meant with each note you played and word you sang. But you have to play it for others to know if you really have communicated your musical and emotional ideas effectively.
Your friends and family are biased about your work. Don’t get me wrong, friends and family are a crucial support system and often your most devoted fans, but they are not usually in a position to offer unbiased critiques of your song. They are predisposed to like your song, or at least give it a fair listen, because they like you. They probably don’t view you as a professional songwriter (yet!), so they are more likely to be impressed with whatever you produce. What’s more, if your friends and family are not audiophiles, songwriters, or musicians themselves, they will not be able to express an informed opinion. Let’s face it, most people don’t know their brass from their oboe, so the response will likely be limited to either “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” And while those opinions may give you an emotional high or low, neither response really gives you the kind of feedback you need to improve your song.
The producer, sound engineer, and studio musicians you hire are biased about your work. Why? Because you are paying them. Many producers will often suggest ways to make a song better, but at the end of the day, the person who pays is the person who has the final say. They’re not going to suggest major changes to your song and then wait two months for you to do a rewrite when they could have money to pay their bills now. Besides, it’s not their job to make you a better songwriter. Their job is to make the songs you bring them the best they can be in terms of arrangement and sound mixing. They’re not going to turn away work just because they think your song is mediocre. And they are not likely to say anything negative about your song at the risk of you taking your business elsewhere.
It makes you grow a thicker skin. It can be intimidating and emotionally draining at times to have others objectively scrutinize your work. After all, your song is a tiny representation of you and your creative energy, and therefore is dear to you. But your fellow songwriters are offering their thoughts on your song to help make it stronger. If you can take feedback from those who are genuinely trying to help, you’ll develop a thicker skin. And a thick skin is essential in the music business, where many people don’t have the time or desire to help, and don’t care if you succeed or not.
Why You Should Critique Others’ Songs
It creates good karma. You can’t expect others to critique your songs if you aren’t willing to help them in return. While you can avoid critiquing others’ songs by spending $30 or more getting your song critiqued via on-line review sites and self-proclaimed specialists, that stage usually comes after you have produced a good quality recording. If you want people to critique your songs before you invest heavily in recording what may turn out to be a “beta” version, you need to return the favor. Nothing in life is free, but reciprocal song critiques are a lot cheaper!
You become more aware of your own weaknesses as a songwriter. When you critique someone else’s song, you’re not emotionally attached to it, so it’s easier to notice all the little flaws and inconsistencies. But the more you notice the flaws in other peoples’ songs, the more you’ll soon recognize it in your own work as well. And you’ll start feeling like a hypocrite when you point it out to someone else when you know you’re guilty of the same sort of transgressions.
It helps you overcome your genre biases. You may have a soft spot for country tunes, an affiliation for aggressive punk rock, or prefer industrial death metal bluegrass, but studying songs in other genres will help you discern what makes a song work no matter what genre it fits under. Furthermore, you’ll begin to incorporate these universal principles of good song writing into your own work as you are more easily able to recognize them regardless of genre.
It hones your ear to discern what really makes a song work (or not). It’s easy for a casual listener to be deceived by slick production, flawless musicianship, and powerful vocals, but a great song will still stand on its own even when it’s stripped of all those other features. Sure, a song’s delivery contributes to its overall effectiveness, but the best vocalists, musicians, and producers in the world can’t redeem a weak song on performance alone when the problem dwells in the very fabric of the song. As you critique more songs, your judgment will no longer be clouded by these peripheral elements. You’ll no longer confuse flawless delivery with excellent songwriting.
It expands your knowledge of different kinds of songwriting. When you are exposed to songs by people who write in different genres and have different perspectives, styles, and approaches to songwriting, you’ll gain a wider perspective which you will then bring back to your own craft. Whether you’re impressed with another songwriter’s beautiful lyrics, unusual chord progressions, or syncopated rhythmic motifs, studying others’ work can further inspire you to take your own craft to the next level.
It trains you to really focus on the problems so you can offer solutions. Remember when I mentioned that most people won’t be able to articulate a response to a song other than “I like it,” or “I don’t like it?” Well, when you really critique someone else’s song, you can’t say that (or you can’t say only that). In fact, your own personal opinion about the content or genre of the song is irrelevant. You must articulate what you feel works toward strengthening the song, or weakening it. Naturally, if you can find concrete examples of what you think works or doesn’t in a song, you can often find the solution to help improve the song. And as you start approaching all songs with that mindset, you’ll be able to view your own work in the same light.
In conclusion, both having your songs critiqued by others and critiquing others’ songs makes you a better songwriter. Listening and studying your favorite artists’ best songs can be educational, but those songs are usually subjected to many critiques before reaching your ears. You were not privy to the process of finding the initial problems and working out solutions, and critiquing songs that are still works-in-progress will help you develop that skill. Good songwriting appears to be effortless. It’s only when you study your own and others’ attempts that you realize it’s a process of editing and refining with the help of several people’s ears and input.