Sharon Van Etten

The Psychology of Songwriting: Stories and Feelings

A 1-hour TV drama spends at least the two-thirds of that hour developing a story that pulls the audience in and poses questions that they want to learn the answers to. As the show nears its end, you’ll be presented with the strongest, most spine-tingling event: the main object of the script. All questions are answered.

For example, a serial killer is on the loose, and the stars of the show need to put the clues together as quickly as they can. It all comes to a culminating moment, usually with the killer about to commit one more gruesome murder, but stopped just in the nick of time.

Here’s a part of that formula that you won’t necessarily notice unless you’re really paying attention: the emotional content of the show constantly moves up and down. It may seem as though the show is gradually building emotional energy in a straight line toward the ultimate, spine-tingling event, but in fact there have been several emotional events, each with their own partial dénouement, or resolution.


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 That pattern of building and releasing emotional energy is common to all the arts. All good art, whether it’s a tv drama, a play, a book, even a choreography or an artistic photograph, includes emotional impact as a crucial part of its success. And that emotional plan is rarely a straight line. It’s usually a jagged line, taking the audience on an emotional roller coaster, with the most intense part happening nearer the end than the beginning.

Music is no different. The best songs make an emotional connection to listeners. It may be subtle, such as in McCartney’s “Yesterday”, where the audience feels the sense of melancholy of a love that didn’t work out. It may be more intimate, with a more complex lyric, like Sharon Van Etten’s “Love More.”

Or it might be powerful, like Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” But in practically every case, as you dig down through the lyric and process what the singer is communicating, you will notice that the emotional value in music rarely moves in a straight line.

In one sense, that’s what song form is all about. Moving from verse to chorus is a way of moving from low to high emotional content. And depending on how the lyric develops, you’ll optionally insert other sections, like pre-chorus, bridge, instrumental solos, and so on — all in a bid to keep emotion moving higher and lower again.

A literal roller coaster provides the rider with many ups and downs, not just one big hill. The best music does the same thing.

There are many ways to achieve this in songwriting. Some of them are specifically songwriting issues, while others are more production-level manipulations. And sometimes they’re done subtly, barely being consciously noticed by the audience. But they’re always there. It is psychology at its best.

If you want to be sure you’re making the most of your songs’ emotional plan, check out the following ways you can and should be manipulating your audience:

  1. Keep verses from becoming too emotional. Use the verse to establish a story. This allows the listener eventually to generate their own emotional response.
  2. Allow choruses to be emotionally charged –even powerful — sections. If your verse has done its job, the chorus will pull the listener in via the emotion of the lyric.
  3. Build instrumentation so that the backing instruments sound fuller in a chorus.
  4. If verse and chorus are both energetic, add a bridge that brings emotions down lower. A good example is John Newman’s “Losing Sleep.”
  5. Move melodies higher if they’re meant to convey more powerful emotions. Audiences experience higher melodies as meaning higher emotion.
  6. Use vocal harmonies more in emotionally charged sections. Fuller vocals are usually interpreted as have more of an emotional impact.
  7. Use volume to generate emotion. You may find that you can create a stronger impact by making things louder. A great example of this is Simon & Garfunkel’s “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her“, which, even with such a sparse instrumentation, builds at the end to the point that you can almost hear the heart break.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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