How to Write Better Songs By Making Better Creative Decisions
Creativity can be broken down into a series of decisions. A decision to replace paramour with lover in your first verse; to use a minor instead of a major; to add a Beyoncé sample to your chorus. The quality and consistency of your musical choices can lead to a radio hit, or to another unfinished demo gathering dust.
Music is a creative art; a discussion of decision-making may seem irrelevant. But bear with me! Each of your musical decisions requires tradeoffs and sacrifices. To include one melody is to reject another; to add backing vocals is to obscure the lead. And while there hasn’t yet been much study of decisions in music, the fields of psychology and economics have uncovered quite a lot about how we make decisions in our regular lives.
If you better understand how you make your creative choices, then you can improve that process. Making better decisions leads to better songs. And — as we’ll discover — you’ll end up happier, too.
How We Usually Make Creative Decisions
Economists have traditionally framed decision-making as a purely rational process. You look at your available options, weigh the pros and cons, and choose the option with the greatest positive balance. In a perfect world, perhaps, this is how we would make our choices.
In our world, this model falls apart. Most of our decisions are made with an abundance of options, too little information, and too much uncertainty. When I write a verse, I have created one new option I can compare against other possible verses. Yet I have a virtually unlimited number of other possible options: all the possible verses I didn’t write. It isn’t possible to evaluate my actually-written verse accurately against all the potential other options.
Genres, personal style, and songwriting conventions go a long way towards limiting our number of possible options. And we can further limit that number by working only with verses we’ve actually created. But as creators, we will always know we could create a few more options. This is a huge temptation, and it’s one that leads to songs being written over years and albums being produced over decades.
But even when we’re limited to the set of ideas we’ve already created, we run into a deep-set problem: humans are terrible at making decisions when there are too many choices.
How many choices are “too many”?
Surprisingly few. In a set of now-famous experiments, researchers set up a stand in a grocery store selling varieties of jams and gourmet chocolates. When they offered 6 choices, shoppers chose more quickly, purchased more of the products, and rated their satisfaction with their choices higher than when the researchers offered 24 or 30 choices.
This experiment went a long way towards proving we often can’t use the pure rational model in the real world. The rational model predicts we should always want more options. That’s because if the new options are worse than our current options, we can disregard them. If they’re better, then we can accept them as our new best options. But what actually happens is we’re quickly overwhelmed by choices and become incapable of making the best decision. Our ability to evaluate each choice declines (there’s less time to spend on each); our chances of making the best decision decline (in the study, it fell from 1/6 to 1/24 or 1/30); and we become more tired and prone to errors ourselves. The end result: a poorer decision.
The rational model is also called “maximizing”. In other words, we seek the very best option of all possible options. When there are few enough options, this strategy is the best solution. But when writing music, there are often hundreds or thousands of options when we make decisions. Maximizing quickly becomes inefficient and exhausting.
A Better Way to Make Creative Decisions
An economist named Herbert Simon noticed that these ideal conditions for maximizing rarely exist. He developed an alternative model called “bounded rationality” as a better way to make decisions when the conditions are poor for maximizing. Bounded rationality (also called “satisficing”, a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice”), agents make decisions by accepting the first adequate option instead of searching for the best of all options.
A few decades later, a researcher named Dr. Barry Schwartz put these ideas to the test. His research demonstrated not only that satisficing is an efficient way to make decisions, but also that users of this strategy are significantly happier with their decisions as the result. It turns out that satisficing can help you make sense of an overwhelming amount of choices and information.
This is exactly the situation that we find in music. With so many opportunities available to us, it’s impossible to settle on the very best melody, lyric, synth sound, guitar tone, or any other of hundreds of variables that go into a song. Satisficing offers a way to make decisions that doesn’t lead to paralysis.
The strategy is simple in practice. First, set your standard (what is “good enough”?). Then, accept the first option that meets or exceeds those standards.
Unfortunately, setting standards in music can be difficult. It’s easy to set standards when hunting for an apartment, for example: choose a price range and a couple of conditions, and when you come across an apartment that works, you should take it. But when you’re writing melodies for a new verse, most likely you have no idea what “good enough” might be. In these cases, you need to actually discover what your standards are.
Setting Standards for Satisficing In Music
The best way to set standards for satisficing is using a sample set. This simply means creating a small palette of options to start with, and then using the very best option as your threshold going forward. One of the best explanations of this strategy comes in the form of a story, from Gerd Gigerenzer:
Sultan Saladin searches for a new wise man as his adviser. To test a candidate, the sultan offers him the woman with the largest dowry in his sultanate as his wife, provided he can pick her out of a group of one hundred beautiful women. If he can’t, he will be fed to the beasts.
The women enter the room, one by one, in a random order. When the first woman enters, the wise man can ask about her dowry and must immediately decide whether or not to choose her. If not, the next woman enters, and so on, until he chooses one. The wise man doesn’t know the range of dowries and can’t return to a woman he rejected. What strategy gives him the best chance of selecting the woman with the largest dowry?
[The] 37 percent rule: Let the first thirty-seven women pass and remember the highest dowry so far. Then choose the first woman with a higher dowry than that.
– Gerd Gigerenzer, Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions
Let’s apply this to music. When I have a backing track and some verse lyrics I need to create a melody for, I can start off by singing a few dozen takes to get some options. When I start getting repetitive and I’m not coming up with anything new, I can take a break. That becomes my wise-man sample set.
Then, I can return to recording. My only job is to create a musical idea better than the best idea in my sample. Once I achieve this, I’ll stop and use that as my verse melody going forward.
There’s almost certainly a better melody out there. Perhaps, as I continue working through other parts in the song, I’ll come up with an even better verse melody than I had before. But to continue pushing and pushing through options, searching for the very best melody, is to become less creative and more exhausted.
Satisficing won’t necessarily give you the best song in your catalog, but it accomplishes another vital goal: finishing. One of the hardest roadblocks I face in my own work is actually finishing a lyric, song, or mix. Satisficing is a solution that can help you overcome these blocks.
And who knows? You might even enjoy the process a little more.
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