If you are writing songs with lyrics, and if your goal is to create an emotional impact, then this is perhaps one of the fundamental concepts that you’ll want to keep in mind. This is such an often-missed opportunity (even among songs that are very impactful already), though it is very easy to implement. It makes such a big difference that it’s worth drilling it into your head. Here it goes:
Music and lyrics should work cohesively to create an emotional focus.
By that, what I mean is that when you read the lyrics and listen to the music (without paying attention to the words) the feelings you get from each should be compatible. They don’t have to be exactly the same but each should make sense as a member of a whole.
In so many songs, lyrics and music conflict with each other in terms of their emotional content.
Opportunities Missed vs. Capitalized
Let me take an example from a very famous and impactful song:
Shot through the heart
And you’re to blame
You give love a bad name
I play my part
And you play your game
You give love a bad name
Now, read that while trying not to remember the famous song that stanza comes from. What impression does that give you? I find it resentful. Or the corniness and directness of it makes me think somebody’s intentionally trying to write a teenage break-up song. If I didn’t know the original, I would have never guessed that this is a chorus to a catchy, upbeat, sing-along-with-a-smile-and-fist-in-the-air party rocker that is Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.”
So what happens when words and music conflict with each other? It’s still possible to write an impactful song — this is not a problem, this does not necessarily ruin a good song. However, the meaning of the words get lost. You’ll sing those lines without engaging in the message contained. Words just become something to mouth, so that you can sing along to the melody. Therein lies the missed opportunity.
If the words and music worked together, the emotional penetration can be so much deeper. Listen to this opening stanzas from another impactful song:
Is it getting better?
Do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now
You got someone to blame?
When it’s one need
In the night
We get to share it
Leaves you baby
If you don’t care for it
U2’s “One” is a great example of how lyrics and music work cohesively to create a deep emotional resonance. Notice how sparse the song is in the beginning, notice how conversational the melodies are. The phrases don’t have any unnatural emphasis on weak syllables, there are no huge, dramatic jumps in the melody. All work together to create the experience of someone who is having an intimate and very difficult conversation with his/her romantic partner. If you didn’t know the music, the words alone may come across differently from the music with lyrics — but the experience/content make sense here. And the song just strikes a deep chord, particularly to those who have had similar real life experience.
How to Create a Cohesive Music + Lyrics Pair
Once you know the concept, the process is simple. Whichever comes first — words or music — first analyze its emotional content. Then create the counterpart that complements that content, so the whole thing has a clear focus.
Note that it doesn’t always mean that the two should contain the exact same emotional content when take apart from each other. If you wrote a sad song with sad lyrics, sometimes it can be too much — it may be downright morose and too wallowing to listen to. Think of it more as a two sides of a whole, each showing an aspect to the whole experience the other may not be fully articulating. For example, if the song is sad, perhaps the lyrics don’t need to focus too much on expressing its sadness — it may come across as more understated and refined if it focused on telling a story in a plainer, more objective manner, so that the music can tell the listener how it feels instead of the words.
When I write myself, I usually write on guitar first and then come up with melody and words, often in that order. So I’m constantly listening to my work-in-progress asking myself “how does this music feel? What kind of stories or impressions does it want to express?” For instance, Minnasia’s heavy song “Arms Lost” ended up having a lot of war imageries, because the extreme dissonance and intense drama of the music dictated that the lyrics be equally severe.
Sunless war-torn zones
Arms lost beneath her terrace
Circle, missing piece
Price was everything to your cause
Lungs, broken ties
See mine add to the long arrays
Your harmless lies
Bleed each day more, sing praise
To promised land
Conclusion: Don’t Miss This Opportunity!
Every song you write is an opportunity to create a piece of art that can touch a listener’s life. Crafting it with words and music working together to create the maximum impact — it seems so obvious once you’re exposed to the concept, but many songs miss the opportunity that it had. Don’t let this happen to your next song. Write words and music that work together, so one enhances and complements the other. This is a central concept in the art of impactful songwriting, and once you realize the potential that lies in it, you’ll never go back to writing meaningless words.
Photo: Bryan Jackson
This was a great read! I just discovered your blog when I found you on Twitter, and you write about similar topics to me, so I’m glad I found someone else in my field to read from time to time.
I agree with the idea of music and lyrics cooperating to give the listener the same feeling. I personally enjoy when the music and lyrics work together to form a story, and it can sometimes be frustrating when they sharply contradict each other.
Thanks for the comment Aaron. Glad you enjoyed this article. Yes, we have to keep in touch and see if we can help each other.
Absolutely. I’ll be sure to check out more of your blog when I get around to it.
Not sure I agree. Sometimes, pairing “sad” or downbeat lyrics with a bouncy, upbeat melody can give a song an interesting texture. Sad songs with minor key, mournful melodies can be great, but they can also telegraph their intentions too directly, leaving little room for surprise. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is a total jam that might, on first listen, appear to celebrate America and espouse patriotism, yet the song is actually a sharp critique of American history and culture. Would it be as effective if the music was darker and less rocking? Maybe. But a big part of what makes that song such a classic is the contrast between the melody/instrumentation and the lyrics.
First, thanks for a thoughtful comment.
Second, note that I never said that the lyrics and music should convey the “same” feeling. My point, however, is that they should work cohesively.
Third, we have to keep in mind that the definition of success differs from song to song, writer to writer. I was writing from the point of view of writing for emotional impact. I argue that all hit songs are impactful in one way or another, but they don’t have to be emotionally impactful to be a hit. And of course, a song can be a success even if it’s not a hit.
All that said, I actually think the example of “Born in the USA” supports my point, rather than debunks it. That is an oft-misinterpreted song, thanks to its buoyant and anthemic chorus. I just re-listened to the song again in several contexts, there’s not a hint of conflict in the music itself. If Mr. Springsteen’s goal was to create an effective protest song, then yes, I still think this song isn’t as good as it can be because of the music not supporting the intent behind the lyrics. Between words and music, the latter wins out in this song and people aren’t getting the point that he was trying to make.
But perhaps writing a protest song wasn’t his goal, or at least not the most important one. Perhaps he wanted a stadium anthem, but he couldn’t bring himself to be one-dimentionally anthemic, so he tried to inject a different layer with conflicting lyrics. I myself wrote songs like that, before I realized that I did want to make people feel something through my songs and developed my impactful songwriting approach. But I’m letting the old songs be what they are, warts and all. You are right in that the conflict between the words and music did become part of that song’s character in my mind.
So still a missed opportunity. But not a law or a requirement. One can still write strong songs without this approach… but if you want people to feel something from your song, I’d say it’s an easy place to start.