How to Add “Finishing Touches” to Your Songs

“Finishing touches” are options you can use to enhance the intended impact of a song and keep your listeners interested.  Keep in mind, there are many unconsciousdecisions when creating songs, like the pace of a song, how you strum or pick (for guitarists), the way you voice your chords, when to sing or play or when to be silent.  The Finishing Touches workshops I’ve facilitated have encouraged writers to become more aware of their options and to consider alternatives.

Finishing touches are like digital photography

Think of a song’s finishing touches like digital photography. With photography, capturing an image is the core of the creative effort but presenting it with maximum impact might mean intensifying or removing a color, reframing, or using other editing techniques.  Similarly, musical finishing touches don’t focus on modifying your lyrics and music but improve the creative package and improve how the listener hears your song.

Why songwriters have a tough time with finishing touches

As songwriters, we tend to have a lot of “defaults” that we tend to rely on, such as

  • Playing most songs at the same speed (or maybe one pace for fast and one for slow)
  • Strumming most songs the same way
  • Singing most songs in the same way
  • Playing a C chord the same way every time.

As a result, our songs can lack impact and variety because they seem so familiar, especially if you play several songs in a row or a full set.

By the way, there are no right or wrong answers with finishing touches! The songwriter decides what “touches” to use.  The point of considering finishing touches is to make the decisions conscious ones.

 

Examples of finishing touches

1. Speed. 

Many of us tend to write songs at the pace we used when we started composing.  By the time the song is finished, though, it can be useful to revisit whether the song should be faster or slower.

For example, I’ve had a few songs that started out as slow ballads that “work” as well or better with more upbeat deliveries.  Or slowing a song down can be effective.  For example, listen to the difference between “Such Great Heights” as recorded by The Postal Service (the original) and later by Iron and Wine.  If it were your song, which would you say presents the lyrics as you would like them to be heard?

2. Simplify

Some musicians and songwriters almost always play full chords and play constantly (i.e., no rests and little variety).  But it can very effective to consider doing LESS.  For example, at the beginning of a song, use a single strum for whole measures? Or instead of playing full, standard chords with all 6 strings of a guitar (or lots of piano keys), use portions of chords (e.g., 3-note chords) that leave more room for the lyrics.  Note that playing less is easy, so songwriters with novice skills on an instrument can easily adopt this approach.

Some examples of tasteful, spare use of accompanying chords include Cliff Eberhart’s “Your Face”; Civil War’s “Poison and Wine” (piano part); and Shawn Colvin’s cover of Tom Kimmel’s “When You Know”.  Try picking a simple ballad of yours and start the song with just one strum for each measure for at least the first couple of lines — how does that feel?

Another fun intro that starts with handclaps and adds strums (with space/rests) is “Rio” by Hey Marseilles.  Isn’t that an engaging way to start a song?  Some might call that a production or performance issue, but to me, it is a creative means of engaging your audience so your song is heard.

3. Strums/Fingerstyles (or the equivalent on other instruments)

Do you have favorite strumming styles that you tend to use a lot?  Try something like strumming with all down strokes.  Use single stokes like the guitar in Pierce Pettis’ “I Am Nothing.” Play in a pulsating way like the Lumineers’ “Submarines.”  Do you have one “fingerstyle” pattern?  Try a different pattern (check out tabs or other resources online that teach other ways to play).  Variety is very helpful to set your songs apart from each other.

4. Single-Note Licks

Some songs are very effective when you either add single note parts between chords or just use them as the accompaniment alone for all or part of a song.  Listen again to “Your Face” mentioned above and play with one of your songs to find a few tasty single notes to play between your chords.  Or check out Sarah Jarosz’ cover of “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Inner City Blues” (e.g., Peter Mulvey’s cover); and “Backbone” by Carsie Blanton for examples of using single-note parts effectively.  Can you find a song or portion of a song where you might forego playing full chords and instead rely on a lick or other instrument (e.g., bass if you have access)?

5. Vocals

Again, variety can help you keep your audience interested and give your song more impact.  Would an acapella vocal section (no accompaniment) help your song?  Some examples are Steve Earle’s “The Gulf of Mexico” and Karla Bonoff’s “Baby Don’t Go.”

Instead of always starting your songs with instrumental intros, how about starting the vocals from the very beginning of the song?  Check out Claire Lynch’s “Hills of Alabama,” Shame (Avent Brothers) and “In My Recurring Dream” (Kenny White).

If you are in a duo or larger group, is one of your songs ripe for a duet?  Some songs take on different meanings if they come across as conversations or share messages.

Other Finishing Touches

There are other considerations like prosody, using percussive touches, varying your dynamics, and more that can be useful to consider in getting your lyrics and music ready to share with the world.  The point is to consider your choices consciously.  And have fun…you can always go back to your old habits but exploring the options may affect your next song… if not this one.