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When is a song “finished”?

QuestionThis blog and its associated video channel go by the name of “Finish Your Song”. But what does that mean, and does it mean that same to you as it does to me? When I came up with the name, I thought it was fairly obvious, but now I’m not so sure.

Graham Cochrane over at the Recording Revolution is running a 3 month series on recording an EP. He devoted January to writing the songs, February is recording month and he’ll be mixing them in March. (Check out his blog – it’s a great source of information and thought-provoking discussion.) He works in the same way that I do – you write the song first, then record it. In that sense, “”Finish Your Song” is something of a misnomer, because a song is finished when it’s written. But the recording of the song isn’t finished – in fact, it hasn’t begun. Many people talk about “finishing a song” in that sense, of having a tangible recording that people can listen to, be it on CD, MP3 or even a YouTube video.

There are people for whom the writing and recording processes go hand in hand. I’ve watched a few videos off the front of magazines where we’re “in the studio” with a producer, only to find that their idea of writing a new song is to start by layering different kick drum samples and see where that goes. There is no chord progression, no lyrics. It’s seemingly a random process where the instrumentation and arrangement is built up first, then the song itself emerges later. That process means that “finish your song” is both about writing and recording, inextricably linked.

Not that I’m averse to the element of random – several years ago, I was playing around with the MIDI features of Cubase and reversed the bassline to a song called “Hideaway”. Once I’d quantised it to the grid, I added a simple alternating tom pattern to provide a basic rhythm. The result was musically pleasing, but quite different from anything I would have written myself. I was about to delete it, when my songwriting partner arrived, heard it and latched on to it as a potential song. We worked that evening to create a scratch track, which he took away and came back a few days later with the lyrics to what, with a little reshaping of the rough structure, became “Every Little Thing”. The song was written, but we then went on to “finish our song” as we recorded it, by adding the extra instrumentation and expanding that original tom pattern into a fully fledged drum part.

So when is your song finished? (Oh, and a little teaser – I’m far from the first person to reverse a song to create a new one. Steve Cropper famously did it – but with which two songs?)

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