It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel. He spent eight hours a day, six days a week, meticulously painting what is one of the greatest works of art in human history. How did Michelangelo know he was done? He ran out of ceiling.
In music there is no physical “ceiling” to tell you your song is done. You can always add another verse or re-do the hook or even re-make the beat. Songs don’t have to have the typical verse-hook-verse-hook structure, you could play with it and make it hook-hook-hook-verse. But you better have a good hook!
The Cringe Test
But aside from song structure. How do you know your song is ready for release. You first have to do the “cringe test”. The cringe test is when you listen to every second of your song and every time you cringe, you fix it until you stop cringing and start smiling. I don’t care if you have to take a real note or a mental note, but you go back to the parts that make you cringe and fix them.
Of course, in order for the cringe test to be effective, you’ve have to have built up your taste level high to where you’ve either listened to a lot of music for a long time or just know what sounds good right away. Honestly, I’ve never met anybody in the latter camp but I do guess they exist. Everyone whose taste I admire, knows an insane amount about their field.
Another caveat is that you could be a poser, someone who thinks they have great taste but it is not fully developed yet. You’ll know if you’re a poser if you tell others, “I have great taste” and they never tell you, “You have great taste”.
Feeling a Feeling
Another way to know if a song is finished is if you listen to the song and it makes you feel the way it was intended to feel. So if you make a sad song, I want to see tears. If you make a party song, I want it to be a song you and your friends would actually play at your party. And no pity-plays either. You know where you start playing your own song.
Music is all about communicating emotion. So if you are able to control a listener’s emotions through your music, you hold the power. Of course, this is very difficult to do. How many times do you hear a song and it doesn’t do anything for you. You’ll know your song is complete when it does something for you.
The Possibility’s Trap
In the last few years there has been a trend by artists to defy typical song structure by exploring the possibilities of what the artist imagines. But this is not always conducive to making the best song, in fact it can hinder it, I call this the possibility’s trap.
We saw this with Justin Timberlake’s new stuff. Sure 8 minute songs that change direction mid-way through are a spectacle but if they just don’t sound good, you just wasted 8 minutes of my time. It is like an action movie with the best action sequences and a horrible story. Just like story telling is the backbone of great movie making, sounding great is the backbone of any great song. Most artists that fall into the possibility’s trap do so to cover what is already a bad song. Adding that three minute guitar solo is not going to make it sound any better.