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Open Mic: What’s The Quickest Way To Kill A Song?


Although songs unfold and progress so naturally to us as listeners, the process of songwriting itself can be a difficult beast to tame. There are many mistakes, ranging from minute to catastrophic, that songwriters can make throughout the songwriting process that can damage the overall quality of a song.

For this week’s Open Mic discussion, we wanted to go back to the very basics, and open the floor to all of you to see which mistakes you have made, or have seen others make often that we, the songwriting community should be wary of.

Below are 10 mistakes that we’ve outlined to get the discussion started, but we need your help to uncover all of the common mistakes that are being made.

Take a look at the list below and then add your own ideas or suggestions in the form of a comment!

1. Attempting to conquer more than 1 topic per song

While it is important to focus solely on one topic in a song, it is also just as important to make sure you have at least that one topic or your song will suffer from just sort of meandering without any purpose.

2. No focus on who the song is being written for

When writing a song it is important to know who your intended audience is. There are 3 main types of audiences that a song could be written for which we’ve outlined in full here.

3. Refusal to re-visit, re-write or re-work songs that aren’t quite finished yet

Sometimes a song just doesn’t feel ready yet. One of the biggest mistakes any songwriter could make is to rush through the writing process, proclaiming a song to be done because they have finished a session or because it is ‘close enough’.

4. Confusing over-used, cliched lyrics with those that are ‘poetic’

Lyrics and poetry and intersect. But it is an important distinction and common mistake to understand that the two are in fact not the same thing. Many times songwriters will attempt to create something poetic and instead just inject their work with cliche after cliche.

5. Lyrics are too ‘artsy’

Unlike using cliched lyrics when trying to sound poetic as mentioned above, many times songwriters will attempt to sound ‘artsy’ (think The Beatles Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds) by combining descriptive words in a way that sounds unique, but ultimately makes little sense.

6. Writing in confusing song form

Many times in songwriting, simplicity is key. Oftentimes songwriters will attempt to create complicated song forms with intricate time signatures and chord progressions, but unless the focus is prog-rock, this unfortunately becomes more confusing to the listener than creative.

7. It’s sounds sloppy due to over layering instrumentation or vocals

Again, this goes back to the importance of simplicity in music. Layering instruments or vocals can be great, but they can just as easily hurt the overall song if they are done improperly, or too much, to a point where they sound sloppy.

8. Songs are too long or too short

A song should feel natural in its length. Pushing it too far or not pushing it far enough will lead to a lackluster final song.

9. Lack of enunciation in singing

This can be tricky, while it is a common mistake to sound too grumbly on a track which can hurt the vocal quality and the importance of the lyrics, over enunciation can also hurt a track by not sounding natural.

10. Using false emotion

Many times songwriters will attempt to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to tell a story or convey an emotion that they may have never felt themselves. This is always a mistake as the emotion will come off as ‘phony’ or even just a little off, rather than truly genuine, making it very difficult to truly connect with the listener.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Now that we’ve outlined 10 mistakes that we feel are crucial to avoid, it’s your turn to add to this list! We want to hear from each and every one of your suggestions of song-killing songwriting mistakes that we should all avoid in the form of a comment below.

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40 thoughts on “Open Mic: What’s The Quickest Way To Kill A Song?

  1. Great list, especially points 4 and 5. Poetry is meant to be read, but lyrics are meant to be heard.

    1. Thanks Brian! I’m the first to admit that I made this mistake over and over again when I was with my band in college. It’s hard to make the distinction sometimes but it’s an important one to make for sure!

  2. Getting verbose with lyrics. Keep things simple – avoid a million adjectives and get on with it!

    1. Agreed completely – I find that often the simple but RIGHT choice for a word in a lyric can make all the difference.

  3. I agree strongly with 5) and add to it that the presentation of the song or the band itself can be too artsy or pretentious.  It’s great when the listeners think the band is cool and unique but not so much when the band thinks the band is cool and unique.

  4. Forcing a certain style or image.  When a band tries to write a song in a style that does not suit them it is usually detectable by most listeners.  If you are a band of 30+ year old bar rockers and you try to write a catchy pop punk song about hating your teachers and wanting to skateboard all day, it probably won’t go over as well as you think.

    1. TOTALLY agree! Great point. Thanks!

  5. I find that the one rule I follow the most is, “keep it real” that can mean many things. But the simplicity is always key. As for focus and length sometimes some listeners just get bored. Or want more. tough to always find the perfection, unless it comes from keeping it real… In other words: if it is contrived and in some sort of an attempt to please others. I have a stack of failed attempts that I most likely will never release.     

    1. Definitely agreed Chris – actually I think a good thing to add to this list would be to avoid shooting for perfection right off the bat. This forces songwriters to be in a constant ‘critique mode’ while writing rather than just getting into the zone and producing something. 

      1. That was my biggest hurdle to overcome.  When I first started writing, I wouldn’t make it past the 2nd verse because it wasn’t perfect.  Now, I’ve learned to just write what comes to mind, start working and singing it and eventually, the right phrase or words will show up.

  6. Can’t believe I have to say it, but, singing in uncomfortable key. Or, not staying within one’s vocal range. 

    1. Yep, totally. This is painfully obvious to everyone else listening to the song too. 

    2. So true… I almost always try and write something too high for my voice then end up having to lower it a step or so.  

  7. Prosody is the word Pat Pattison would use to sum up a lot of this post–prosody being the idea that everything in the song is on the same team so to speak–i.e. melody, chord structure, lyrics, tempo, etc. are all synced and delivering the message of the song. 

    That said, I got a bone to pick with 4. which seems to suggest that cliches are somehow ‘poetic.’  Cliches are cliches–which is to say a cliche is anything a listener has heard one too many times–will the time you say it be the one?  

    I agree that song lyrics are significantly different from a poem.   The closest comparison I can come up with off hand for the two is
    paintings vs. comic books (or painting vs. graphic novels if that feels
    better).  A poem has to stand on it’s own, without music, sort of like a painting is a picture that has to stand on its own without words).  Since our focus in a poem is entirely on whatever the language is trying to stir up in us, I feel a poem can go into a lot more depth than a typical song lyric.  
    Song lyrics share aural space with a melody which often means they are best served by a bit more directness and simplicity (like many comics have simplified are that make it easier to share space with the words) 

     Anyhoo… cliches can be great to play with if you can twist ’em just enough to make ’em new again, the cliched songwriting example being “UN-break My Heart” by Toni Braxton.  

    Finally, (as if I haven’t said enough already), I think the quickest way to kill a song is not to sit down and write the bloody thing whether you seem to be breaking the above rules or not–except for number 3; failing to go back and rewrite is verboten.

  8. having paris hilton do it

  9. I need to feel the emotional connection with the song. Too many times I hear a song and can’t connect with it because it sounds like the singer is just going through the motions.

  10. the song is too long. 

    1. oh, and writing a song just for the money can really take the soul out of it as well.

  11. A good quick way to kill a song is shouting ‘scream for me Long Beach’ in the chorus… Lol I’m not joking, I heard that before, and it wasn’t an Iron Maiden’s Live After Death tune.

    1. haha! really. I hate it when i’m at a show and the performer exhorts the crowd to “put your hands together”, or points the mike into the crowd; “Let me hear you!!!” aaaaackk! leave me alone! you’re the performer. perform and leave me alone. you wanna hear me sing, come to my gig.

  12. 1. Endless reworking of a song so that its different everytime you hear it.
    2. Stingisms: repeating the same phrase again and again ad naeseum.
    3. Stay within your vocal range or you’ll never pull it off live.

    1. All excellent points! Thanks so much for your input!

  13. For me it is an artist with good abilities trying to be something they are not. My best abilities lie in writing lyrics and melodies but I am aware that I am not a particularly good guitar player and though I can easily sing in a 4 octave range I am NOT “The Voice” I must keep it simple in order to sell it.

  14. What are the three audiences? 

    1. Opps! Sorry Lujos, I had intended to link to a previous article I published here on the Songtrust blog – here’s the link:

    2. If you were asking me that question I would answer: 

      Me. myself and I  — and sometimes you. 

      Please yourself first and then find an audience who is similarly pleased. Write the kinds of songs that give you the same goose pimples you get when you hear other people’s songs you love. Write music the way you cook food. If, over time, you come to discover that you and only you love what you do, then you still come out a winner. You’ve just passed the ultimate Shakespearean test: “To thine own self be true.” Perhaps the world is not yet ready for what you have to share.? That’s ok. That’s just the price we pay for being genuine and writing from a higher and deeper place inside ourselves. Some of our contemporaries can do that with commercial success while others simply can not. Don’t ever let someone else tell you what you should and shouldn’t do; especially when it comes to art! Your art should be a mirror reflection of your life. Live it like today was your last day on Earth. 

      Some of us are better architects while others are better carpenters. Though we can learn to do better what we can’t do so well, it’s obvious that people are born with inclinations and aptitudes towards particular types of work. As a society, it would behoove us to come together about this understanding. There is a huge industry today running thriving businesses off the dreams of children. If your child needs multiple singing lessons before he can sing a note in key, he is probably not going to be the next singing sensation. It would be better to channel your child’s talents into the areas he or she is best at with natural affinity and inclination towards. You can row your boat upstream, and all the power to you, but don’t forget that paths of lesser resistance will still prove difficult, and full of hard work and pitfalls. 

      In short, we can’t cheat reality. A songwriter is not supposed to be a slight of hand magician and carpetbagger. People want to interact with genuine people possessing genuine talent, producing genuine art in a genuine world full of other genuine people. Anything short of  that is just plain PHONY. And the public will sniff that out soon enough. 

      Aint nothin like the real thing, baby.

  15. Song issues come from so many places. A novice reading these would be sorely mislead. That being said, my qualms generally come from those w/o enough experience to see the science of music, and still consider creativity, which probably should be in scare quotes, to be some internal gift from god. Dont get me wrong, I whole heartedly believe creativity is important, but it’s the science of ideas… So get out there and fucking learn all you can!
    One other comment is: be intentional. Doing something w/o understanding why ur doing it is probably why not every singer songwriter has a hit on top 40.

    David Miner

  16. Great essay. I especially like the focus on, well, focus.
    I happen to teach composition, including songwriting and writing for musical theater. One thing that I tell my students is that the best songs have what I call a “progression of logic”; even if you’re not telling a story, let the song move logically from one idea to another related (or developed) one. Another is that good songs have differences in tension (emotional, melodic, harmonic, in any combination) between verses and choruses (if a chorus is used), or verses/refrains, and “B sections” (or releases or bridges) when used. A melody for a chorus may be higher in a singer’s range than the verse (or the reverse) for example. Finally, B sections/releases/bridges, when used, usually show a change in perspective lyrically, as well as a different take musically. The latter can take the form of a switched-around harmonic progression in the same key, or a move to a different key entirely, and so on.

    1. Hi Steven, thanks so much for reading and leaving such great feedback! 

  17. I have been writing and playing for 25 years and the one thing that can kill a songs is
    to be more concerned with what others think than feeling it or not all on your own. It sounds easy but we are all so consumed by other infleuences and being accepted that we have forgotten the one that should matter the most………. as the soprano would say clear throat………………………………………… ME ME ME ME ME ME ME. If you dont like it or think it is not worthy   voila ….It is not.

  18. Some great advice here. “Using false emotion” is well said.  The past couple decades could easily be penned “the era of false emotion, cut and paste replication, and phony gestures” (likely why so many people insist classic music was better…). That not only goes for song writing but performance as well. 
    I think the criticism of “artsy” lyrics is a little more nuanced. What if the next Flower Power revolution is upon us? We definitely see a lot of people occupying the streets, “getting together” lately. Perhaps songwriters should forget the current trends and try to get ahead of the curve with their own “LSD” songs? It certainly worked wonders for John Lennon who apparently spent a lot of time sitting on corn flakes waiting for the van to come. 
    Also, in terms of “cliched lyrics,” unless you want to start inventing new words (as I sometimes do actually) everything you would say to someone in conversation has pretty much already been said in the public domain (books, songs, films, etc). And so by that measure, we all speak and write in what we’d have to define as “cliche.” If you want to lose cliches, I suggest the LSD song approach. Go through the book and pick out obscure words and try to make them work in a song. David Bowie used to take words and sentences, cut them up, mix them up, and pull them out of a hat and put them in random order. It worked very well for him and it could just work well for you too. 
    The problem with teaching people how to write songs is that most people are not cut out for it (clearly, or we wouldn’t need such advice columns!). Songwriting is a relationship you have with yourself and the natural elements of the world around you, including other people. It’s more a profession for people who aspire to things like meditating and hiking alone, marked with intervals of social interaction. It’s work for the most sensitive and thoughtful souls among us and not something you can learn in a DIY book. Having said that, there ARE limitations, constructs, and processes to figure out for yourself. Others can help, of course. I have most enjoyed reading comments from my favorite songwriters about the process, and I’ve noticed the ones who do it best (Hall of Fame standard) normally say very similar things about being a “channel” or “medium” for the song. 
    If you think that last bit of advice seems “inflated” or new age nonsense, I would strongly disagree. Most important, in my opinion, is to humble yourself with your art. To allow ideas to flow through you before something really grabs you in that “Aha!” moment. The worst thing you could try to do is force a song because you are hell bent on writing a song. The harder you try to grab at it, the more it will elude you.  I try to think of a song like building a home. It needs a foundation, walls, insulation, appealing decor, a cozy fireplace… and something bigger that binds all of that together. A kind of spiritual glue. Just my 2 cents.

  19. When performing live, I think one thing that kills a song is a long, boring break where the performer is just going thr0ugh the chord progression a couple of times. Of course the performer hears whatever lead instrument will go there in his or her head, but the audience just has to sit and ride it out. If you are performing with just you and your guitar, try to cut the lead completely, or come up with a shortened version of it. This makes your song much more enjoyable to a live audience. How many times have I sat through someone pounding out a G, C, D, progression over and over until I wanted to yell, “We get it! Now just get on with the song!”

  20. The only rules in ‘Art’ is that there are no rules!

  21. some good points, but too generalized, really. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is “too artsy”! I wish I wrote that song. As for enunciation, also way too generalized. If you’re Jr. Wells, Howlin’ Wolf, or even Jagger or Boz Scaggs, that might be a pretty moot point. Also, length is very subjective too…..American Pie, Roundabout, Stairway, Freebird, etc. Trite lyrics….try reading Every Breath You Take as prose, or, gasp…Love Me Do. I don’t know. I think songwriting is way too subjective to make such broad generalizations. A good hook or killer riff can make up for a lot.

  22. kill a song in an interesting way and you might hold an audience.

  23. 1.       No more than 3 (like jokes). Tie together at end, like a movie unless your intent is to tell three unrelated short stories. Again, like movies.
    2.       Write from the heart, first. Then figure which audience it applies to and hone it in that direction.
    3.       Find the stamina, fortitude, and control of one’s ego to re-write, re-record, remix and re-master.
    4.       Clichés can be corny (as if there’s something wrong with that). Write a song using nothing but clichés.
    5.       The position and pitch of melodic notes can sometimes dictate if it is a vowel or consonant. The rhythm determines the syllables. Strive for colorful words that are fun to sing and read. When writing lyrics try working crossword puzzles with the TV on in the background tuned to METV.
    6.       If you are trying to wander from the standard formats, it has to sound natural. The Dave Brubeck “Time Out” album is a good example. OF NOTE: most song phrases are 8 or 12 bars long. Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is 7 long.
    7.       It’s all in the mix. Keep it as simple as possible. If you think it needs more to sound right then it isn’t right to begin with.
    8.       Determine length by feel. When do you get bored? My songs average 4:30.
    9.       Don’t enunciate to the point of sounding artificial.  There’s some emotion in that slur.
    10.   If the song is first person become the character. What emotion(s) does the song evoke? Feel them.

  24. A good framework to consider in order to captivate an audience.  I agree there are some songs that are contrived the writer is distant from the emotion of the song or quite possibly too afraid to be vulnerable.  I also think that a lot of  ‘artsy’ songs just fall into a different category.  To be artsy can also come off as trying to hard to break the mold.  My least favorite lyrics are those that are just streamlining cliches or a really ignorant chorus. I use thesaurus to expand my vocabulary when writing along with every technique I ever studied in creative writing classes, outlining, bubbling… edit, re-edit, walk away for a while & edit again with a different perspective. I have a book of one liners because at the time they had no place until days or even years later I stitch them into something relevant to complete it. I’m stoked that the guy 2 comments down shared about David Bowie’s techniques. There is another way to connect emotionally to lyrics not your own… Bob Marley sang lyrics straight from the old testament and the book of Psalms.  Thing is he believed in his heart the words he sang and that purity will always be recognizable & well received.
    When you open yourself up to be a vessel for which creativity to flow through you are 15 paces ahead of the game… A good friend of mine who is a documentary film maker comes up with ideas and songs all the time. He is always surprised because he knows it comes from something beyond his feeble mind, in his South African accent he will shout,” * @&$! I have no idea where that just came from but it’s brilliant isn’t it!  Usually it is. He has learned to allow thoughts and ides to manifest through him. 
    Maybe the ‘LSD song approach'(to quote mr amplefire) was what gave artists the idea to trust what was coming out of them no matter how abstract they sounded. The musical revolution of the 60’s was influenced by a lot of mind altering substances and heavy change, a global shift, much like what we see happening now. Now that we are in 2012 we have learned to practice tapping our minds without such usage (although some prefer to still indulge).  The real question is have we watered down our creativity because of the seemingly infinite avenues of technology? Prerecorded sound bites are available for anyone to create a mix on a tiny little electronic box while drinking a cup of coffee in their kitchen with a simple phrase or some la la la’s… What happened to crafting our skill? The ones who think outside of the box will know skill comes over a lifetime and will strive to explore & express it.  Artists are alive when they create even if a critic tells them they’re not doing it ‘right’.  They will paint words so honestly that a listener will actually think, ‘Man alive, is this person in my head?!’  The advice above is great advice and there is no formula, just truth. Be honest, be vulnerable, be able to connect and please do not be repetitious with silly things like… My humps my humps… Sorry Black Eyed Peas that was probably the dumbest song I ever heard. 

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