Dealing With Emotion in a Lyric is Tricky

Emotional SingerUltimately, what causes the connection between a song and a listener is the emotional response of the listener. The listener needs to hear something that makes them go, “I’ve been there before..”, or “I can imagine that happening to me..” That kind of empathy is important; if the audience isn’t putting themselves in the shoes of the singer, there’s really no opportunity for the audience to feel anything, and so no connection is possible.

Songwriters tend to know this, and it’s why the vast majority of hit songs focus on humanity’s favourite emotion, love. But with songwriters who are developing their craft, there’s a common problem with trying to get an emotional response from listeners by singing about love: singing about an emotion doesn’t elicite an emotion from listeners. You need to sing about a situation first, and then sing about your emotional reaction to that.

Imagine if you were having a talk with someone, and they said, “I’m just so down, and I don’t know what to do.” Your obvious response would be “What’s going on?”, and you’d likely ask that question without feeling much of anything yet.

But if instead someone said, “My boyfriend told me off, and told me he doesn’t want to see me anymore. I’m just so down, and I don’t know what to do..”, then you’d feel something. You’ve got the situation clearly defined in your mind, and you’re starting to feel the sadness that your friend is experiencing.

That’s the power of empathy. As humans, we simply only need to hear about something, and then we can actually start to feel the emotions as if it were actually happening to us!

But if your song lyric is simply something like, “Oh, I feel so down/ I wish I’d never met you/ I feel so down/ Don’t know what to do without you…” – that’s a problem. You’re singing about your emotional response to something, but you haven’t told the audience why you wish you’d never met the person. So the opportunity to empathize is not there.

So here’s how you fix this. Lyrics need to be structured, and here’s the standard way of doing it:

VERSE LYRIC: Tell us what’s happening, or what happened. Give us a bit of your emotional response to things as you tell us, but use your verse mainly to describe and explain situations.

CHORUS LYRIC: Tell us what you’re emotional response to that situation is. Make sure that the chorus is telling us what you feel and maybe why you feel it.

BRIDGE or OTHER LYRICS: Bridge lyrics should go quickly back and forth between explaining a situation, then giving a quick emotional response. That quick back-and-forth will help to generate even deeper emotions.

So when you’re done your song, go back and take a good look at your lyrics. Be sure that the verses explain and describe situations, with a bit of emotional response, while the chorus gives mainly an emotional response.

That kind of structure goes a long, long way to pulling listeners in and helping your target audience to grow.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. “singing about an emotion doesn’t elicite an emotion from listeners. You need to sing about a situation first”

    that’s a really helpful distinction Gary. I’m writing an emotional song at the moment and am getting sidetracked by imagery in general – so I’m goign to give your road map a try.

    I’ll let you know if it helps!

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