Sad songs

How Emotion and Music Intersect

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and so I’ll state this up front, and then give you some additional thoughts:

Good music is not meant to express emotion; good music IS meant to create emotion.

I want to tell you a bit more about this. To say that a good song is meant to express emotion is like saying that a good car is meant to burn gas. Yes, good cars burn gas, but so do bad cars. And a bad song can express a lot of emotion without creating it in the listener, and that’s a song with a problem.

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I have said many times that good songs are about feelings — about emotions. But those are emotions that are created in the listener as they listen to the combination of all the components that make up that song: the melody, chords, lyrics, instrumentation, vocal style, and so on.

In the attempt to create emotion within the listener, the good singer-songwriters will likely express a lot of emotion: Art Garfunkel singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah”; Adele singing “When We Were Young.”

But emotion is meaningless if the listener isn’t using it to generate their own emotional response. If you listen to a song and feel nothing — either because the subject doesn’t resonate with you, or there’s just something not sitting well in the production of the recording — then all the emotion of the singer (songwriter, producer, etc.) is meaningless.

As you write your own songs and you are at the final stages of writing and then recording the song, you need to listen to what you’ve written, and ask yourself — from a songwriting point of view — “Does this song have the capability of creating emotion within the heart of the listener?”

Sure, your performance of your own song may be dripping with feeling, but have you managed to write something that has the ability to create emotion within the person who’s listening to it?

A song’s ability to create emotion comes down to that complex formula generated by the partnership of elements: Is the lyric speaking powerfully to the audience? Are your chord choices generating the mood you require? Does the melody move up and down with the ebb and flow of the emotion of the words?

It may seem like I’m just playing with words here, but I always cringe when I hear people say that good songs express emotions. Yes, they certainly do. But the mark of a good song has little to do with the emotions being expressed, and everything to do with the emotions being created.

And that’s a big difference.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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