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11 things to try if you just can't seem to finish a track

Chequered flag
(Image credit: Future)

We've all struggled to get started on a track, but for many of us, actually signing off on one and calling it 'finished' is even more difficult.

If you're struggling to say goodbye to a song, here are 11 ways that you can put it to bed and move on...

1. Accept that it won't be perfect

A great philosopher once probably said ‘to achieve perfection is impossible’, and while that is not strictly true (just ask a band like The Blue Nile), accepting that your music might not hit perfect levels might mean you can actually finish it. 

If you are constantly striving for a level which is impossible to achieve, you may actually end up doing more harm than good (see tip 3). 

2. Accept that tracks are never 'finished' anyway

Why not take that further and accept that a track will never be finished? You will always - days, weeks, months and years after ‘completion’ - find ways that a track can be improved (especially with the rush of new technology, product updates and releases that will tempt us to tweak it) so try to accept it as a calling card from that point in your music production history. That’s what you did back then and it’s fine. Leave it.

3. Go back to the start

If you take Tips 1 and 2 into account you may avoid the need for this one. We’ve all been here: a great idea comes to fruition over eight bars of music making and then, in that struggle to make it into a song, we somehow lose the original spark, the original idea and purpose. We end up fiddling, copying, pasting and tweaking for so long that we become either bored with the original idea, or have lost it completely. 

So keep a copy of your original version 1 song before moving on, and catch yourself at the point you are starting to destroy it… and stop!

4. Let it go

Yes, really. You’ll only be able to do this tip once you realise that the great idea you had back in 2002 that would take over the world of clubbing might not be as world-changing as you thought. Take the time to revisit old ideas you have kept ‘because they might be massive one day’ and if they don’t pass a simple ‘tweak it or trash it?’ test, do the latter. You’ll be amazed at how great it feels losing ideas that have basically been a ball and chain all these years. The anxiety of ‘the unfinished’ can be greater than you imagined...

Live’s Arrangement page is one of the best ways to break out of the loop. Which is ironic given that Live is focussed so much on loops...

Live’s Arrangement page is one of the best ways to break out of the loop. Which is ironic given that Live is focussed so much on loops... (Image credit: Ableton)

5. Try Live

Ableton Live’s Arrangement View is your best friend when it comes to breaking out of the loop. It’s so easy to just turn those looped ideas into a fleshed-out song and any mistakes you make can be edited out later. It’s almost worth investing in Live just to get stuff finished.

6. Break the loop

The biggest bonus of DAW recording is that you can quickly get some ideas together, loop them around four, eight or 16 bars, and they sound great. The biggest hurdle is what to do next; to break the loop, make an arrangement and complete a song. 

We’re willing to bet that you have a tonne of these annoying loops kicking around, so revisit tip 4 and decide whether they're worth keeping.

7. Burn it to CD

One for older readers, this. Back in the day, when you finished a piece of music, there was usually a big fanfare of you ‘burning it to CD’ or (even older readers) recording it to a metal cassette (far superior to ferric).

In these days of just exporting a mixdown to a digital file, you don’t quite get that sense of drama, and those exports never quite feel like the finished product. So go through the palava of burning a CD and you might get a little closure from it.

8. Set a deadline

Imagine you are, let’s say, Hans Zimmer, or someone of equal Hollywood film composing stature. Then imagine a film director, let’s say Steven Spielberg. He says to you “hey, Hans, I need the soundtrack done by 4 November”. So you do it, right?

OK, this might be a little far-fetched - 4 November is only a couple of weeks away - but if you set yourself a deadline (or get Steven to do it for you), then there is an end point, a closure date, a fixed point in the history of humanity where you must get that bloody piece of music finished.

Just setting boundaries and rules - as all good parents know - can pay dividends. Give yourself an end point, and you might just meet it. 

Get yourself a pro song loaded, just so you can use a similar arrangement

Get yourself a pro song loaded, just so you can use a similar arrangement (Image credit: Apple)

9. Copy a pro arrangement 

When mastering we say that loading in a finished track by an artist you admire is a good way to elevate the sheen on your own music. The same comes to arranging and finishing a track. Load in a track that you admire and then follow its arrangement to completion. 

10. Take a step back

Two related tips to finish. Try and step back from your track. DAWs can keep you too immersed - you need to see the big picture. If you can’t, then…

11. Get feedback

There’s nothing more personal than making music, so there’s nothing more difficult than being able to step back and actually knowing if it’s any good. Try to - and, yes, we know that this is difficult - get someone else to listen to your work and offer constructive feedback. Another pair of ears might well offer you the piece of the jigsaw that you need to complete it, or indeed a whole new path to finishing.