Songwriting is one of those art forms that presents a strange dichotomy of purpose to the world. On the one hand, we have audiences who insist that their favourite songs, by their favourite songwriters, need to have something vital and important to say.
But those same audiences, whether they’re aware of it or not, need songs that:
- speak to their emotions, regardless of the song’s topic;
- make an audience feel those emotions regardless of whatever else it might do;
- do it in such a way that they feel compelled to return to the song, to feel those emotions over and over again.
Songs need to connect, as we say.
So what’s more important? A song’s message, or the need for it to make an emotional connection?
We’re looking at this from a songwriting point of view, but other art forms might deal with the same issue. When a visual artists paints a landscape, what are they trying to do? What are they trying to say? When Da Vinci painted “The Mill“, is there a message beyond the emotional value of the painting?
To bring it back to songwriting, when you write a song, are you conveying a message, or are you creating something for which the emotional value is its main attribute? Have you been trying to communicate some personal philosophy of life, or are you content simply to get people up and dancing? And if your song does nothing more than describe how you feel about your latest breakup, is that, for all intents and purposes, a self-gratifying waste of time? Can a “Why did she leave me” song ever aspire to be “art”?
My own feeling on this is that songwriters often worry too much that their songs might or might not be making a powerful statement. In other words, while I personally feel that songs should say something about life, nothing is as important as making an emotional connection to whoever cares to listen.
Whether someone wins or loses at love is unimportant to me. Whether I’ve completed my tax return on time is. But I’m more likely to enjoy a song about love than I am a song about tax returns.
That’s because love, and all its related subtopics, touch my emotional soul, while taxes make no connection to me at any level.
I can’t tell you what’s important when you listen to music. It may be that for you, songs need to say something vital about life and how we should live it. And when you write songs, you may feel the same way; your songs need to impart an important life message.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but I do need to point out that a life message without an emotional connection will rarely keep listeners coming back. If your purpose in writing songs is to edify your audience, there will be no edifying without an emotional connection to the listener.
That’s why a song that says nothing more than “I love you” still sells. Take a look at the songs that have hit the top of the charts for the past 6 decades, and you’re probably looking at songs that do nothing more than describe love, in all its possible scenarios.
They succeed because they pull at people’s heartstrings. They engage the audience and make them say, “I’ve felt like that before,” or “I know what they’re going through.” That, ultimately, is what good songs do. That’s what good music has always done.
So if you find yourself worried that your songs aren’t really saying anything important, that’s only a problem if you thought they were. Instructing and educating your audience has never been the purpose of good music. It’s always been much simpler: to connect to your audience and make them feel something.
If you want to go beyond that, please do. I like songs that make me think. But unless your audience is feeling something, you may be wasting a lot of time. A song’s emotional value is more important to the world than its educational value.
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