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August, 2013

Emotion in Songwriting

by Webmaster

Many years ago, when I was going through a really difficult time, I heard a Kris Kristofferson song with a lyric that helped me and became part of my basic philosophy: "I have had my share of the sunshine. I can stand a little rain." Our words have power. As writers, speakers, songwriters, we need to remember that.

"Music is the emotional life of most people." Leonard Cohen

I was at a songwriting workshop recently, during which we discussed the roles of inspiration and craft in songwriting. Obviously, there is a need for both. Inspiration gets you started. Craft helps you perfect your first draft. When you're stuck, craft can help you find inspiration again.

I've heard some very clever, well-crafted songs that left me cold. I simply could not find an emotional connection to them. I've heard people defend them on the basis of how well-crafted they were, and I had no response to that. Yes, they are well-crafted but something important is missing.

During that workshop, we did some writing exercises, designed to help us hone our craft of writing as specifically as possible. Find an object, write down all the details about that object using seven senses. Seven? Well, I know of five: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. Add two more: how your body responds (goose bumps, pounding heart) and sense of motion (falling down, side-stepping).

I had trouble with that exercise, at first. I couldn't take an object and write about it without an emotional connection to that object. And I realized that any discussion of songwriting is not complete without a discussion of emotion.

Two years ago, I took a songwriting course with a songwriter I really respect. He started us out with a writing exercise, called clustering. He asked for someone to come up with an emotion. We wrote that in the center of the page, and then wrote down specific sensory images that went with that emotion, going off into different directions. Those images took us to other images, and so forth. We then used that exercise to come up with our hook, which was also the title to our song. Using that technique, I was able to write a song that I'd been struggling with for several years.

I started with inspiration for the song, but couldn't make progress because I hadn't fully identified the emotion I wanted. Using the emotion, I was able to come up with specific images that would fit into a song, diverse sensory adjectives and nouns that form a consistant picture that conveyed one emotion. I could then use craft to hone that into a song that people understand and relate to. People like the song!

People like songs they can relate to and that put them through emotional changes. Laughter is one emotional change. Funny songs don't usually have "legs" (staying power). Happy songs are hard to write. It's much easier to write a sad song. People relate to sad songs and stories. People respond to sad songs and stories.

So, this column is a mixture of songwriting techniques regarding emotion and commentary on emotional content in songs, according to writers much better than I. Perhaps the will give an explanation of how and why we need emotion in songs, even well-crafted songs.

"When you're happy, you enjoy the music. But when you're sad, you understand the lyrics." — unknown

"Be serious. Life hurts. Reflect what hurts. I don't mean that you can't also be funny, or have fun, but at the end of the day, stories are about what you lose." — John Irving

"Winnow away the stuff around the concept to get to the emotion." — Chuck Cannon

"Harlan Howard used to say to me, 'You can write; you just ain't got nothing' to say. Get divorced and married a few times.' And I did, and then more things than that happened. Now I wish I didn't have as much to say. But since I do, I'll write down everything I can." — Gary Allen

"A simple melody, a good beat, and emotional clarity tend to connect much more directly and powerfully than clever or fancy accompaniment." — Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” — Victor Hugo

"...Kristofferson used everyday language. When ya do that it sounds like a real person communicating a real emotion." — Kendal Fransceshi

"When life leaves you speechless, songs give you lyrics to find meaning." — unknown

"If you're going to be a songwriter, you have to believe that every minuscule slight has importance. You have to believe that every little loss that you've had is meaningful and can, therefore, be broadcast out in the world and be exaggerated and amplified into a song." — John Vanderslice

"…music seems to have an ability—beyond any other art forms, in my opinion—to stir up emotional memories. And, I guess, literal memories. ...music exists to help people remember emotions. Not necessarily the emotions that are contained within the song itself, but most accurately the emotions that are contained within people that they have trouble getting to. And songs are functional in that way, in a lot of cases. And music, handed down over many, many years, helps people remember, not necessarily what happened, but what people felt like when things happened." — Jeff Tweedy

"Something has to hit me pretty hard for me to write about it, and usually when something affects me strongly enough, it's a negative encounter." — Hardy Morris

"When you are stuck, think to yourself, 'What is the emotion I want people to feel?'" — Chuck Cannon

"There's some magic in songwriting as it filters through your heart and your mind and your body. If you work on those things, what comes out of your fingers isn't just craft, but it's your heart and soul and everything. The only way to do that is to live a real life, to be conscious of all things—spiritual, nature, fellow human beings, compassionate things, all that. When you combine all that and it comes out your fingers, you're writing songs. I can always tell how hard a person's lived by the way they write songs." — Fred Eaglesmith

"There has to be part of your heart on that piece of paper sometimes." — Dean Dillon

"Economy counts in a song when you only have a short period of time to get across the emotion you want to convey." — John McVey

"Funny how song writers can squeeze a novel into a few verses. I suppose that's why poets are the ones who make us feel what we can't say." — Patrick Bone

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