A song is working well if the listener can put themselves in the shoes of the singer. Whether that means that you identify with the lyric, or simply love the way the guitar solo sounds, the listener needs to make a personal connection to some aspect of the song. It’s why air guitar is a thing, or why it’s easy to imagine holding a microphone and belting out a tune; good songs connect in that way.
It’s a mistake, however, to think that audiences connect with a simple expression of emotion. They don’t, as a rule. So-called “hurting’ songs” only express emotional distress in the chorus, once a verse has laid out a story or situation that a listener can connect to.
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It’s the situation that connects, not the expression of emotion. In most songs, the verse is where that connection is constructed. By the time the chorus happens, you need to have given enough of a description of something connectable that a listener is primed to think, “I know what that must feel like.” Once that connection is made, the chorus’s expression of emotion taps into what the listener is feeling, and you’ve got a potentially successful song.
Occasionally you’ll hear conversations amongst songwriters that tell you not to waste time writing songs about your feelings, that they usually sound like drippy, complaint-ridden diatribes. But in fact, people generally love songs that express feelings. They just don’t like songs about feelings.
So how do you write a song that expresses feelings without making the song about feelings? Here are some tips:
- Keep the verse focused on events, circumstances or situations. That doesn’t mean you can’t express an emotion in a verse; of course you can. But that can’t be the point of the verse. The point of the verse is to lay out a storyline that connects. Verses that focus on emotional outbursts become songs about emotions, and that’s what you want to avoid.
- For songs that start with the chorus, the main emotion should be positive/happy. Don’t start a “I’m so down” song with the chorus.
- Allow verse 2 to express more emotion than verse 1. Verse 2 comes after the chorus, in which you’ve made it clear how you feel. So verse 2 can let a little more emotion show. But remember, a verse’s job is always to add to the story.
- Allow for some subtlety when balancing descriptive and emotive lyrics. In other words, though a verse should describe situations, it’s completely fine to make it obvious how you’re feeling. And though a chorus should focus on an emotional response, it’s OK to elaborate on the story to some degree. It’s all a matter of balance.
- Imagery, metaphors and other literary devices are important parts of good lyrics. With imagery, a word or two can paint an entire picture, and that allows for a more complete musical experience for listeners. Be clever without being pretentious; be clear while still being imaginative.
So go ahead: love songs still work, and will always work. Just make your story compelling, unique, and engaging. And make your song about the story, not about your emotional response to it.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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