Staying organized is crucial when you’re working on an album. The importance of this is easy to overlook at the start of a project. Once you commit yourself to saving all of your ideas, it doesn’t take long before you are buried in audio files and scraps of paper and can no longer remember which pieces belong to which song. This is why it is essential to have some system in place for refer back to your work.
When I first got started recording my own work, I expected that I would be referring to songs by their titles. The problem was, when I first started working on a new song, I almost never had a title for it yet. I usually didn’t have more than a few lines of placeholder lyrics hastily sung into a tape recorder. If the first line was “Back when I was young,” I would save my song demo in a folder call “back_when.” My thought process was “Well, of course I’ll remember which song this is. It’s the song that begins ‘Back when…'” There are so many problems with this approach: lyrics change, song titles change, sometimes a song part that was going to be used in one song ends up in another. Three years down the road, the phrase “Back when I was young” won’t jog your memory at all.
I was looking around for other solutions, when I remembered reading that Mozart was so prolific that, after his death, a musicologist named Ludwig von Köchel came up with a special numbering system for all of his work: every piece of music he wrote was assigned a Köchel number (or K-number). Now, instead of just referring to a piece as “Sonata in C for Violin and Keyboard” (for all we know, Mozart might have written ten other sonatas in C for violin and keyboard), people refer to “Sonata in C for Violin and Keyboard K. 28”. (You can see the full Köchel Catalog for Mozart’s work here.)
The train of thought that followed is probably obvious by now: what if someone had a Köchel catalogue for their work… and was also still alive at the time to enjoy it? How useful would it be to have an index of every song you had ever worked on (finished and unfinished)? I immediately went back into my archived song ideas folder. I pulled up the first scrap of a song I found. This would be song 001. Since it started with the lyrics “Back when I was young…” I put it in a folder called 001_back_when. The second scrap I found became 002, the third 003, etc. In this way, the songs would be listed in numerical order in the directory, and I would still get to keep a scrap of the placeholder lyrics form the song to help jog my memory. Unlike the actual Köchel Catalog, which made attempts to be chronological (not always easy when new Mozart compositions continued to be discovered even after the catalog’s publication), I don’t really care about when a song was written. If I discover an old song that was unnumbered, I just give it the next number in the series.
If I delete a song, I empty the folder, but I always keep the folder itself as a placeholder (renaming it as follows: “0009_deleted”).
So that’s it. Pretty simple. Even if this is the only organizational measure you take, it’s totally worth it. As long as you keep on numbering your songs and use a consistent file naming convention, you will automatically have a catalog of all of the songs you have ever written just by looking in the directory where you keep your song files. For physical content (lyrics sheets, music, whatever) I have a small file box. Each time I finish with a piece of paper, it goes into a folder labeled with the song number is belongs to. Even more useful, each lyric sheet has the song number written on it and circled. If I want to know what I’m looking at, I just look in the top-left for the circled number.
Hope this helps!