Your songs can benefit from emotional honesty in big ways when it comes to connecting with audiences. But when music is too emotionally obvious or extreme, there’s a risk that anyone other than the person or people who created it will be able to resonate with it. From lyrical narratives to the way your music sounds, emotional nuance is important for creating work that’s listenable and relatable.
Think of it like food. A meal without herbs and spices isn’t worth cooking or eating. But a chef pouring in entire jars of cayenne pepper and cinnamon into the pot won’t result in food that anyone will want to eat. When we think about emotional nuance in songwriting, the goal is to strike a balance between bringing genuine emotion to our work, but not in ways that keep listeners intrigued and engaged. These four tips can help you add emotional nuance to your songs:
Use symbolism in your lyrics
There’s nothing wrong with coming out and saying exactly how you feel in your music through lyrics, instrumentation, tempo, and moody chord progressions. But when it comes to the lyrical side of things, you can easily achieve emotional nuance in your songs by using symbolism. Saying you feel scared or in love or bored of your hometown in your lyrics won’t carry the same emotional potency as using symbolism to convey those messages. Emotionally nuanced music isn’t conversational, it’s poetic and filled with meanings that are subtle and not always easy to find.
Don’t rely on extremes
Extremes have their time and place in songwriting, but using them too often will be bad news for your music––unless leaning into extremes is a part of your genre or musical identity, that is. Edgy, heart on your sleeve lyrics, blazing-fast or molasses-slow tempos, dissonant chords, and music so loud or soft that it’s undynamic might sound compelling on its surface but can actually end up sounding predictable and boring to audiences. Emotional nuance is valuable because it leaves room for listeners to interpret music in ways that relate to them. When lyrical or musical extremes color your music more than anything else, there are less relatable and engageable ideas for audiences to explore. It’s also important to remember that listeners are smart; you don’t need to spell out everything for them in your music. Emotionally rich, nuanced music can be interpreted by the individual listener on their own terms.
Don’t be afraid to keep some things hidden
Many songwriters view their craft as therapy. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but taking it too seriously could alienate audiences. Radical and uncompromising honesty doesn’t need to be a part of your creative process, and it could actually end up being harmful. Songwriters are editors of musical, lyrical, and emotional information. We decide what sort of emotions and personal experiences make it into our songs, and which ones don’t. Hiding the way you feel about specific topics isn’t just a good idea, it’s essential because we can’t include everything we feel in our music or expect our listeners to relate to everything we put out there. In light of this, it’s okay to inject fiction into your music, leave out emotionally heavy topics and feelings, and intentionally add emotional ambiguity into your songs when needed.
Speak through characters
Characters are powerful tools for emotionally nuanced songwriting. They allow us to say, feel, and think things we aren’t capable of, and they can be vehicles for complex emotional ideas. It can feel risky or even impossible to say what we really want to for the benefit of a specific song, but filtering ideas through a fictional character can allow you to do it. Characters can give your music more emotional nuance because they take the pressure off when it comes to presenting ideas that come straight from you.
Creating music that’s truly emotionally interesting and subtle isn’t easy, but a good place to start is by thinking about the sort of music that moves you the most and why. Get specific about the lyrics and aspects of the music, and you’ll most likely find ideas that are complex and not always obvious.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.