This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.

There's a disconnect with musicians about what goes into actualizing great music, in that they’re often scared to ruin their good ideas by exploring them further. The majority of musicians find the drafting, experimenting and developing of ideas to be the most important part to achieve great work. The Beatles and Weezer are both known for doing fifty takes as well as alternate versions of a single song. Beethoven would write seventy different versions of the same phrase. Porter Robinson took three hundred hours to make "Years Of War." Bjork says she spends 90% of her time editing the good ideas she receives from collaborators. This is not to say every song that takes a long time is great, but to make great music you need to dedicate yourself to an arduous process of experimentation to vet your ideas.

Drafting is the process of gaining further resonance for your initial ideas. Figuring out how to elaborate is a skill that if developed properly leads to the best possible execution of your intent. While it can seem as easy as just working on them, there are countless techniques and lenses to look at each of your ideas through that can help enhance your songs.

Drafting Over And Over Again

 Just as research is often a dirty word to musicians, somehow for many songwriters there's an idea that the first lyrics they write down are solid gold, so any refinement will surely mess them up. Writing a different set, Googling, employing a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary to further their lyrical intent is asking too much of them. Unfortunately, it's much more rare that the first set of lyrics is the best possible choice compared to a bunch of considered revisions. On Mad Men, Don Draper would implore Peggy Olson to write 25 different taglines for a product, and if you don't think this same process hasn't been used in every genre of music to make songs you love, you're mistaken. Listening to most of the great lyricists talk about their craft, it's not uncommon to write down twenty different ways of saying the same lyrical turn of phrase before choosing the combination that works best.

In clinical studies on creativity, when you ask people to free-associate the color green, everyone says grass first, but when you get to the bottom 20% of what they come up with, there are much more creative ideas. This is also the case in music, as the first ideas you come up with are usually more obvious than those that come if you keep digging past the low hanging fruit. Continuing to dig for an answer for even a few more minutes than usual can lead to way better results. I regularly see musicians give up on improving their ideas the second the room goes silent and no one has a better idea. You should write excessively and then trim back to get to better ideas since the excess is usually useful for other parts of your music. I tell the lyricists I work with to have more lyrics than the song can hold, in case we need to add, substitute or write a new counter melody.

But what about option paralysis? If you do a lot of brainstorming, you start to learn what works for you as well as shortcuts to get the best ideas. You skip the obvious ideas to get more interesting outcomes faster. Watch David Bowie's Five Years documentary, Jay Z Fade To Black or any of the documentaries on Metallica's recording process to see how they're averse to "stock" or "overdone" ideas. They skip right past the obvious ideas, digging deeper to more advanced treatments like making the chorus quieter than the verse or having an intro hook that never happens again in the song.

When a part of a song feels like it can be improved, challenge yourself to develop ideas that squash your lack of comfort. Try committing to taking an hour for each song with a thesaurus or doing free word associations, figuring out other words and imagery that connote what your heart's trying to convey. Pass your lyrics to someone else to get feedback on what could be done better. Try small variations on your riffs and beats to find what's optimal. These subtle drafting tweaks are how you find the resonance in a song.

Are You Drafting Enough?

On the podcast I host for Noise Creators, the most common complaint of the producers I interview is that when a group begins the recording process, they're on their second or third draft instead of ninth. Sadly, the first draft may not even be done when many bands walk into the studio to lay down a final version. All of these producers agree the work done before starting the recording process is far more important than any work done during recording.

While many songs can suffer from too many ideas, far too many never even try to excel to find their limits to be edited back to an optimal level. I don’t consider a song done until I have to hit mute on a track in the mix since we went too far after having too many ideas on how to add resonance. Without going too far, you’ll never know if you could’ve made a song even better.

First Instinct, Best Instinct

 With all this analysis, I'm sure some of you have been wondering what to make of the fact that your first idea is usually your best one. While not everyone feels that their first ideas are their best, it seems to be a common thought in muscianland. There is cause for this; some artists get in an emotionally resonant zone while creating a song, which is why they continue to develop it. Often they were in a specific emotional place, so when they try to elaborate on their demos they don't feel the same, so subsequent drafts are thrown out, making the first idea the one that's kept.

The other common reason for sticking with the original idea is that demoitis has set in, so nothing sounds good but the original idea. If you've listened to your demo too much or played a song for too long before going through the drafting process, you'll be more prone to liking your initial demos. I find it important that once there's a good skeleton for your song, you should get feedback and start drafting as fast as possible.

Blame The Head - One of the strongest culprits for the first idea being the best idea is some musicians can't help but let their head wreck a good idea. They get inspired by an idea and instead of retaining it for the right time, they use it immediately on the song they're presently working on, whether it works with the intent of the song or not. For example, they'll be working on a heartfelt acoustic ballad and the bassist will hear LCD Soundsystem's "Dance Yrself Clean" and decide to force this idea on this tear-jerking sad song. They're convinced an arpeggiated synth bass will enhance the song instead of considering the other 11 songs being worked on to find a more appropriate fit for this idea. When the other collaborators hear this idea it’s immediately rejected, so the original demo is kept since this inappropriate inspiration is as far from being emotionally in line with the song as can be. Original ideas are often preferred since later inspiration isn’t in line with the song’s emotional intent.

Confirmation Bias - The other reason artists trust their first instinct is it's easy to count to one. If your eighth draft is normally the one that's best, you're less likely to count that high, whereas it's very easy to notice when the first idea stands the test of time. You think your first idea is always best, so you notice it constantly, but you don't keep an accurate count when it's a later revision.

Your First Draft Being Daring Enough

            BJ Novak, an actor and writer on the show The Office (US), talks about how the show would employ a "blue sky" period in which no one was allowed to criticize one another's ideas no matter how crazy they were. For the first four weeks of writing any season, the writers would be challenged to dream of the craziest scenarios possible to then have them be dialed into a digestible form for a primetime viewing audience. Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Anchorman, employs the same technique.

In music it’s not often said that you should go too far with your ideas and then take them to a more rational and considered place. You may be wondering, what does too far look like? Perhaps it’s making the solo of the song excessive or experimenting with multiple ideas for harmonies to then figure out what’s great along with what’s too much. It can even be setting the mark to do better than the ideas you're inspired by, not just getting to their level.

This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.