Neil Young

In Good Songwriting, You Can’t Tell a Listener What to Feel

To borrow an important observation from Barry Gibb, “Songs are about feelings.” To put it another way, if you haven’t caused your audience to feel something when they hear your songs, you’ve probably missed the point of songwriting.

Emotions are funny things: you usually can’t tell someone what to feel. One event or circumstance can cause excitement and happiness in one individual and depression and sadness in another. Just observe two people from two different countries watching the World Cup, and you know what I’m talking about.


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Telling people what to feel when they listen to your song is not the point. But creating music that allows people to feel something — anything  — is vital. You might think that the subject matter of the lyric is what guides people’s emotional reaction to your song, but that’s not often the case. It’s usually the combination of melodies, chords, instrumental and vocal style which guide our emotions.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering: “Do people feel anything when they hear my music?”

The Importance of Live Performance

One good way to assess the impact your music is having on an audience is to make sure you get out there and perform your songs live. When you perform live, you get a moment-by-moment reaction from your audience, and that can be very instructive.

The only problem with live performance is, in fact, the moment-by-moment assessment. As you sing, you can get more than a little paranoid if you look out and don’t see the reaction that you were hoping for.

Maybe you thought you’d see lots of nodding, smiles, toe-tapping and other signs of complete engagement by the audience. But as I say, you can’t tell a listener what to feel, and it may be even more accurate to say that you can’t tell an audience how to feel.

If you were Neil Young, doing those solo performances at the BBC back in 1971, near the beginning of his career, you may only get to properly assess the audience’s reaction at the very end of his song “Old Man.” The audience is subdued but appreciative. It’s probably exactly the reaction Neil thought he’d get, and he’s probably happy with that.

In a later 2006 live performance, about 35 years later, you notice a different audience reaction: the audience cheers at the first sounds of the guitar intro: after decades hearing it on classic rock radio stations, they recognize the song. They cheer at various moments: they’re enjoying the thought that “After all these years, I get to hear Neil Young perform this song live!”

For any good songwriter like Neil Young, he likely doesn’t perform a song that isn’t exactly the way he wants it. He polishes the tune until it sounds right. Then at that point, he knows he’s written a good one, and he’s got the confidence to sing it because it’s good.

“Old Man” has been around a long time. For some, it will sound nostalgic, for others it will sound like a personal anthem and stir up feelings of strength and confidence. For others it may have been the favourite song of a loved one who’s now passed away, and so it might cause feelings of sadness.

So you can’t tell an audience what to feel, but that’s irrelevant. What you want is for people to feel something.

In your own songs, you need to ask yourself, “Have I given my audience something that allows them to have an emotional reaction?” You’ll need to assess different components of your song:

  • Lyrics: Do they tell a compelling story? Do the lyrics fluctuate between observational and emotional?
  • Instrumentation: Does the choice of instruments seem to support the emotional makeup of the song?
  • Vocal style: Is the way you sing likely to elicit the reaction you’re hoping for?

Live performance will go a long way to helping you evaluate the effectiveness of your music. You can adjust lyrics, melodic shapes and other aspects such as key and tempo each time you perform a song in a bid to get the right reaction.

When all is said and done, the feelings that your song generates — the fact that your audience is feeling anything at all — is what good songwriting is all about.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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