How do you know when a song is finished?

Illustration: Benedikt Rugar

Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Is this really true? As a music producer, do you ever really finish songs, or do you simply stop making changes and move on to something new?

In any case, finishing songs can be extremely challenging. Sometimes, it feels like you can keep making small tweaks to a track forever, and you still won’t be completely satisfied with how it sounds. So how do you know when to stop?

In this article, we’ll talk about a few things you can watch for that signify that your song might be ready. Now, some people are better at finishing songs than others—some can recognize these signs and have no trouble letting their songs go, while others never quite experience them and never let their songs see the light of day.

If you’re in the latter camp, keep reading because we’ll also go over how you can learn to finish songs. For many of us, finishing songs when they don’t feel ready—i.e. “abandoning” them—is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. The more you practice finishing songs, the easier it’ll get.

5 signs that your song might be finished

Now, whether you’re struggling to finish producing, recording, mixing, or mastering your song, let’s take a look at five signs that it’s ready (or nearly ready) for the next stage.

1. Nothing interrupts your listening

Try sitting down and listening to your song the whole way through. Do you get distracted by little mistakes, something you want to change, add, or remove? It’s okay to go back and fix these little moments.

At some point, you may find that you no longer get distracted by anything; nothing annoys you or makes you cringe, and you’re able to listen to the whole song without interruptions. This may be because you’ve really fixed everything you possibly could, or simply because the little areas for improvement don’t bother you anymore. Either way, it’s a good sign that your song is ready for the next stage.

2. You listen like a listener, not like a producer

Try listening to your song in a different setting—not your producer’s chair, but maybe a couch or even your car. Hear it as if it’s someone else’s song and you’re merely a listener.

You should be able to detach yourself from the song and simply enjoy it for what it is. You’ll know it’s finished if you’re able to experience the song in its entirety, just like your audience would, rather than listening for individual parts and picking apart every little detail.

3. It sounds like more than the sum of its parts

There’s a magical moment in music production when the song starts to sound like more than the sum of its parts. You, as the producer, know exactly what went into each track, so you should theoretically be able to anticipate what you’ll hear. But there’s another element—an invisible glue that binds it all. It’s not something you add; it’s just there, born out of the way the different tracks work together and complement each other.

When you start to hear this invisible glue, the song turns from a collection of tracks into an experience, an atmosphere, and an emotion. When you start to experience your song in this way—when it makes you feel something—that’s a pretty good sign that it’s done.

4. You’re excited to show it to someone

Do you have a family member, friend, or partner who’s always the first to hear your latest creations? When you start getting excited for them to hear your new song, it’s probably because it’s close to done.

When you do show the song to someone, watch how you’re feeling. Are you tensing up or anticipating any negative reactions from them during certain parts of the song? If not, your song is in great shape.

5. You’re itching to start working on something new

Sometimes, a song is done simply because you’ve worked on it for too long and it’s time for something new. If you keep going back and making small changes, you’ll start feeling resentment towards the song, and the changes you make won’t come from a healthy, creative headspace.

If you feel ready to work on something else, just let yourself do it. You’ll be much more productive and creative working on a new project, than you would trying to over-perfect an existing song.

What if you never experience these signs?

Some of us can clearly recognize these five signs and will happily finish song after song. For others, these signs never really appear—it may feel like you’ll never be able to listen to your song without finding something you want to change.

If that’s the case, there’s really only one solution: finish the song anyway.

It sounds simple and downright impossible at the same time, right?

But consider this—when you listen to your favorite song from another artist, you think it’s perfect, when in reality, the artist can probably think of a million things they’d like to change. They hear mistakes you’d never notice and think of alternative options you never knew existed.

Does it mean the song isn’t finished? Of course not! It’s done, it’s released, and it feels perfect to you and their other fans. The same thing will happen with your song. Ultimately, you just have to decide that it’s done and then let it go.

If you’re still having trouble finishing songs, try one (or all) of the following tips.

1. Take a break

Sometimes, when you spend too much time working on something, you can get lost in the details and forget to look at the big picture. Take a break from your song for a few days, or even weeks, to let your ears rest. When you come back and listen to it again, you might find that it’s actually perfectly fine as it is.

2. Don’t work alone

You may be skilled enough to do all aspects of music production on your own, but it doesn’t mean that you should be the only person who decides whether or not a song is finished. This decision is so subjective, and you’re much too close to the song to make it on your own.

Instead, collaborate with a fellow producer or simply ask a musician friend for their honest input. If you’re sending the song to someone else for mixing and mastering, they’ll be able to pitch in, as well.

3. A/B test

Quite often, the last few changes we make to a song aren’t actually all that necessary. If you really think you need to make the change, ask a non-musician friend to listen to both versions. More often than not, they won’t even notice what you changed, or if they do, they’ll say that either version sounds fine.

Before you spend hours perfecting another one-second section of your song, ask yourself: “Is this edit really necessary?” If it’s going to only marginally improve your song, maybe your time and energy would be better spent working on something else.

4. Set deadlines

The reality is, musicians who make a living producing music for other artists don’t really have time to wonder whether or not their songs are finished. They simply have deadlines they have to meet.

Even if your situation is different, it’s not a bad idea to set deadlines for yourself. If you can’t stay accountable to yourself, find an accountability partner. Promise a new release to your fans by a certain date if you have to—do whatever it takes to help yourself finish the song.

5. Accept your song

One of the main reasons why you can’t finish your song is because you don’t think it’s good enough yet. In other words, it doesn’t meet your standards.

But have you ever considered that maybe where you are in your journey as a producer hasn’t quite caught up to your standards yet? Maybe this is the best music you can create at this very moment. Accept this, celebrate it, and let the song be as it is.

It doesn’t have to be the best—it just has to be the best you can make today.

As you finish more and more songs, you’ll become a better producer, and the songs you make will start to live up to your standards. But if you set the bar too high right from the start, you’ll end up frustrated and never give yourself the time and patience to learn and grow.

Do you know when a song is finished?

Do you recognize the five signs that a song is finished, or do you have trouble letting your songs go out in the world? Do you have other signs we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!


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December 21, 2021

SAYANA

SAYANA is a contemporary R&B singer-songwriter based in Toronto, Canada. She’s currently releasing a new song every month for a year. Check out her latest release, “Favourite Day” anywhere where you listen to music.