Eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven

Dealing With Emotional Topics When Writing a Song

We know that songs work when they connect on an emotional level to listeners. But some topics are the kind for which the emotions are deep and extraordinarily powerful. More than simply singing about love, I’m talking about songs that deal with life-changing circumstances:

  1. A tragic, unexpected death of a close friend or family member (Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven“, for example).
  2. The birth of your own child. (Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely“)
  3. The wedding of your firstborn.
  4. Some other life-changing event for you and/or your country. (“Candle In the Wind 1997“)

Some potential song topics are so deeply moving that it’s hard to put what you’re feeling into words. And then there’s another problem. When the emotions of a situation are the kind that immediately brings you to tears, the danger is that the song can be so powerful that it, paradoxically, fails to make the connection you need: all emotional all the time has a way of dulling its own effect.

So how do you write lyrics that deal with something that goes beyond the norm with regard to emotion? Here is one possible set of steps for dealing with powerfully emotional topics:

  1. Brainstorm. Get a sheet of paper, and in one column start to write down everything you’re feeling. Describe the emotions, what they do to you, and how you react to them.
  2. Organize your thoughts. In a second column, write down everything that’s happened to cause those emotions. Avoid using overly emotional terms, but focus rather on what’s happened, using words and phrases that keep emotions under control.
  3. Lay out your lyric. With those 2 columns, you’ve got much of the vocabulary that you can use for your song lyric. Remember that depending on which section of the song you’re working on, you’ll be using the columns in this way:
    1. VERSE: Use Column 2 to put a verse lyric together. This means you’ll be starting your song with descriptions of events and circumstances, laying the foundation for a powerful chorus, and keeping emotions under control
    2. CHORUS: Use Column 1 to put a chorus lyric together. You’ll be focusing on mainly emotional words and phrases, and this sudden rise in emotions will feel right to the listeners.
    3. BRIDGE: Take a word or phrase from Column 2 (describing something situational) and follow it with an emotional reaction (Column 1).

It’s not vital to do this on paper. It is possible to write your lyric as it comes to you. But word lists are a great way to stay organized. If you start your song with an outpouring of emotion, there’s a chance that you’ll be confusing the audience: they won’t know yet what’s got you so worked up.

Emotions are always appropriate

Keep in mind that even though a verse lyric is used to mainly describe situations, keeping emotions under control to allow for the eventual power of the chorus, it’s always appropriate to allow some emotion to show.

But I wonder if you agree with me that understating emotion winds up, quite often anyway, giving us a more powerful song in the end. Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” is a good example of this. The words don’t drip with the power of emotion that a father has a right to express at the death of his own child. It’s all rather understated. And yet, perhaps even for that reason, the song is powerful, and hard to get through while keeping a dry eye.

In the end, songs are always about how effective your connection to the listener is. Yes, you’re singing about your own circumstance, about something that’s happened to you. But when all is said and done, the best songs point directly to the audience, and allow them to mourn or cheer in the same way that you’ve been able to express.

Perhaps that’s the best thing about writing music: you offer to people a way for them to feel their own emotions by listening to the music you’ve written.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.


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