In songwriting and music production, it’s tempting to think that more will translate to better, whether it’s more effects, drum fills, instrumentation, or extremes. This, as you probably know, isn’t true of course. Some of the best music out there embraces simple, uncomplicated ideas and minimal instrumentation. But something you may not realize is that laying the emotion as thick as possible in your songwriting could also taint your otherwise great ideas. Too much emotion can be as harmful as too much of anything else in the songs you create.
The tricky balance of embracing emotion in your music
Emotions play a huge role in the way music is created, presented, and experienced. Love, heartbreak, rage, longing, profound loss, unbridled elation, and even lesser emotions like listlessness, apathy, and malaise are prominent emotions that are found in all sorts of music from a myriad of genres. There’s a notion among songwriters and listeners alike that wearing your emotions on your sleeve and being emotionally transparent in your songs will help you write better songs as a music-maker, and this is true. Emotional openness and a willingness to dive deep into your feelings will definitely help you access inspiration you couldn’t have found if you were shut off to your feelings.
But when emotion dictates your process more than everything else, your songs will suffer for it. Feeling something huge and powerful is a great starting point for a new song, but it can’t be the single thing that fuels and shapes your song. Put yourself in your listener’s shoes for a second. You appreciate emotional nuance and engaging stories in the music you listen to, and your listeners want the same thing.
When emotion takes over in music in ways that make things feel overly simple, listeners easily get bored and feel unchallenged, not inspired and engaged. It’s a bit like trying to watch a movie where the plotline and characters never evolve and change. It could be big-budget scenes of explosion after explosion, but the novelty wears off quickly leaving viewers unmoved and ready to experience something else.
Emotion is at its best in music when it can inform songs in a story way, and this story doesn’t just exist inside a lyrical narrative. It also needs to come through in the musical aspects of a song. Instead of hitting listeners over the head with the same thing over and over again, you’ll best engage them through emotion by creating music that’s interesting and doesn’t just convey one message. Some of the best music has a knack for embracing contrasts, like when a song is packaged as something upbeat and accessible but is built around dark and cryptic lyrics. This works so well because we hear ourselves in these sorts of emotionally complex songs. No one is just one thing, including your listeners. If you want to relate to people, you can’t make music that’s overly simple and obvious when it comes to emotion. The parts you write, your production choices, and instrumentation absolutely can be simple, but your songs won’t be served when you approach big emotions the same way.
Emotional nuance in songwriting takes practice
Nailing the emotional nuance aspects of your music doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Like every other aspect of finding your unique creative voice as a songwriter, the ability to write emotionally engaging music can take years to develop. It can be hard to step away from your music to get an objective view of the emotional side of things, but learning to do this will help you get better. It’s as simple as asking whether you’d be emotionally engaged by the songs you write, but it’s far from easy. If you commit to staying open and curious, you’ll be on the path of writing interesting music people will want to listen to.
If you keep writing music that never seems to contain the emotional complexity you want, you can try dropping emotion altogether and just trying to write something that’s interesting. Not all great music has to contain an emotional element, of course. As long as you approach songwriting with the goal of trying to be authentic and engaging, you’re on the right track.
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.