When it comes to creating art, taste is everything. We often think of songwriting as an additive process, which might start with a basic chord progression and build from there. But, sometimes it is what is not included in the final product that gives the work its aesthetic quality.
Today, we live in a time of excessive options. Electronic musicians often get cited for not playing instruments the traditional way, and yet the process has never been as simple as pushing a few buttons. Given all of the plugin and looping options, it is perhaps knowing what to leave on the cutting room floor that shapes the character of the modern musician.
With this reality, decision paralysis becomes a real problem in songwriting. There is a tendency to fall into the trap of believing that more is always better, or wondering if something could be tweaked to make the piece better in some way. This can lead us to being caught in an endless cycle of flipping through plugins and presets, and result in a stockpile of unfinished ideas. To this end, having a collaborator or some other like mind to bounce ideas off of can be incredibly helpful. But this is not always a luxury, particularly for the solo musician.
One of my favorite things to do in cases where I am stuck is to listen to the song multiple times while selectively muting each instrument track. Sometimes you will hit right on the problem and hear the song finally work — like magic. Other times it will free up space for the other instruments and you can write something new to replace it.
Another approach that I have seen musicians use is to add certain limitations to the composition process. An example might be using only loops and plugins supplied by your DAW (i.e. nothing third-party), or instituting a time limitation for when you must finish. While this can be seen as limiting creative freedom, it can, interestingly enough, instead act as a creative spur. This logic can also be extended to include other non-digital world based constraints, such as using drums but no cymbals (à la Peter Gabriel).
At the end of the day, being unsure about a piece and general writer’s block are things we all encounter from time to time. While these are certainly not new concepts, musicians of today must develop ways of dealing with the plethora of options available out there, a reality which can feel overwhelming at times.