How to Write Emotional Songs

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For centuries, music has been recognized for its ability to bring out emotions in us. Whether it makes you bob your head up and down, tap your leg, or help you cope, you can’t deny its effects. It’s something that has been conclusively proven through experimentation. After all, we use our senses to link our memory and emotional states. And sound just happens to be one of our most important senses.

Songwriters use this to their advantage when writing songs. Everything from your favorite radio hit classic to a big film score has been designed to coax out your emotions. And it’s so effective that it becomes a part of how songs are composed in the first place.

But the big question is, how does this all work? And more importantly, how can you harness this power to make your songs stand out emotionally? Well, we will be looking at answering those questions below.

Ingredients for an Emotional Song

There’s a lot that goes into writing a song. You can do it in one of many ways as part of your creative expression. However, in the music-making world, there are certain conventions for writing a song that really gets a listener emotionally vested. Here are just some of those conventions you can use to build your song. 

Use Modes for Emotional Flavor

When you write a song, it’s typically written in a scale or key. These are a certain grouping of notes that sound good together. But that’s not all; they each have their own quality that can add that emotional touch.

Music is a relational art. It’s not just about what notes or sounds you use but rather, how they relate to one another. How far or close a note is from another changes the entire mood of the sound. In simple terms, these are called intervals. 

Each mode has its own unique intervals that add emotional flavor. For example, Lydian is considered happy and serene, while Locrian is considered angry and fearful. This tonal color is a really valuable tool for songwriters to target the emotions of a listener.

You can incorporate this into your own songwriting by experimenting with different modes. Hone in on what makes a mode stand out and notice how it makes you feel. Then, use that feeling to relate towards an established emotion. 

Imply Dramatic Flow with Chord Transitions

If notes are the building blocks of music, then chords are the walls that provide structure to a song. They help in giving life to the song while making the other elements stand out on their own. But the secret to emotional success isn’t in chords themselves; it’s in their transitions. 

When you jump from one chord to the next, you induce movement. It creates a forward momentum that drives the rest of the song. What you may not know is that these transitions can be made to seem more or less apparent. 

Let’s assume that you want to draw attention to a part of the song. You’ll want to emphasize the chord change that happens there. You can do this by using an augmented or suspended chord that goes between your two chords. 

On the flip side, you can also ease attention away. This is done by using voice leading techniques like chord inversions. This results in a transition that’s delicate enough to smooth out the change. 

Both of these techniques can be used to imply drama or its absence in your song. It’s a great way to add an emotional edge easily.

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Outline Energy Levels with Tempo

You may not have noticed it, but tempo plays a big part in subconsciously influencing emotion. In a typical song, it’s the tempo that dictates how happy, sad, pensive, or rebellious you feel. 

Most people recognize this on some level. This is why certain songs make for good workout music while others are played in the background to focus on work or studying.

Generally, there is no universal rule on what a certain tempo sounds like. But thanks to experiments, we have a general idea of how they are perceived. 

A song that sits at 60 BPM or lower is considered relaxing, 60 to 90 BPM is engaging, 90 to 120 BPM is exciting, 120 to 150 BPM is agitated, and 160 BPM or above is energetic.

Using this guideline, you can piece out most of your songwriting by considering the energy levels. You can project the kind of pace you feel is appropriate for your song at the very beginning of the process. 

Drive a Song Home with Groove

Alongside tempo, the groove is another important foundational element for a song. It creates a rhythmic feel, which can be just as important for the emotional texture that your listener hears.

A great way to execute this is by emphasizing certain beats in your bar. For example, you can play your drum kicks and bass notes on the 1 and 3 while adding a double snare or clap on the 2 and 4. This will make your song feel lively and make your listener want to move. 

You can even take this energy away by stunting your rhythmic elements. Increase the release on your drums and let your bass line fade out. 

Now your song will sound slow, depressing, or lazy.

Groove also helps cement your song’s time feel. You can make it feel like it went by in a flash, or you can make it feel like it agonizingly drags on, depending on how you accent it. 

Flesh Out Your Emotional Themes with Melody

Melodies are the most listenable part of a song. And they happen to be the one aspect that most people can relate to. So, it’s not uncommon to have your emotional themes nested inside of the melodic framework itself. 

The first and easiest approach to something like this is to emphasize scalar intervals. If you’re playing a sad melody, you want to drive that minor 6th. If it’s happy or uplifting, hit those major thirds. You can even create emotional tension by having your melody ‘travel’ through sparse intervals before settling down. 

It is an effective way to tell the emotional narrative of your song through the melody. In a lot of cases, a melody that sounds emotional will connect with your audience more so than through words and lyrics. 

Use Hooks to Create Lasting Impressions

Whether you know it or not, every song has a hook—something that you can latch on and something that latches you onto the song. You can imagine how something like that can be a powerful way to create an emotional presence. 

The great thing about hooks is that they can be anything: a musical phrase, a lyric, or even the rhythm. The only thing your hook needs to be is catchy. Something that can immediately trigger the listener’s memory.

Think about it, you may not remember the entire lyrics to Queen’s We Will Rock You, but you definitely remember the iconic ‘bang, bang, clap’ rhythm to it. Similarly, you can have the infectious saxophone melody of Careless Whisper play in your head at a moment’s notice without remembering the rest of the song. 

That’s a testament to the power of a hook. You can use them to create lasting impressions that your listeners will never forget. For the purposes of emotional songwriting, try to create at least one hook for your song.

Shift a Key Up to Signal a Climax

Key modulation is a standard practice in almost any music-making endeavor. But nothing is more common than using it to drive a substantial shift in the emotional state of a song. 

The way that this is usually implemented is by shifting the key of a song up in pitch by a whole tone. This enables the song to feel like it has ramped up without actually changing the compositional element of the song. 

You can see this practice in action for songs like Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer. The song moves at a standard pace without doing anything too unconventional. But just before the end of the song, it gets shifted up in pitch. Nothing else changes; the guitars, bass, and vocals play the same thing. Only now, it’s in a different key.

This makes for a very simple trick that will ramp up your songs without doing anything major. All you have to do is shift to a higher key to impart an emotional journey. 

Fade Out to Make Your Song Linger

There are many ways to end a song. You can do it abruptly, gently, with an ending melody, or just repeat the hook. Or if you really want to hit hard with the emotional state of the listener, you can avoid an end altogether. 

That’s where fade-outs come in. They’re an effective way to let your song linger on even after it has officially ended. 

This is also an effective way to coax someone into replaying your song again. Since there is no definitive end, the need for things to resolve causes repeat listens just to get some form of it. Producers are well known for using this technique in chart-topping songs to get as many plays as possible.

You can use this as a simplified way to make your song elevate a few notches above. Just add a fade in and watch the magic happen. 

Speak with Your Lyrics

It shouldn’t come across as a surprise that the lyrics can elicit emotion. But not any song can attempt it. It takes a certain craft to actually add depth to your words. And that’s by using them to speak directly.

There’s no one way around this technique. Different songs have used different techniques over the years. It can be something like a narrative device, imagery, or word associations. But the base idea is the same, to make your listeners’ hair stand on end with just a few powerful words.

You can attempt this with a simple trick of using pronouns to target emotions. Using ‘You’ can connect you with the listener on a deeper level. Words like ‘We’ and ‘Us’ add an inclusive universal element to that connection. And ‘They’ can personalize you both against a common third party. 

Using these techniques, you can connect directly with the listener by speaking to them. It’s a personalizing touch that really mixes in emotive value. 

Affect Emotions with Effects

It’s hard to ignore the aspect of production and post-processing in modern songwriting. Often times, effects are just as creative as the building elements of a song.

There are many different effects that you can go for these days. Especially with the flexibility that the digital process provides. But If you’re not comfortable with many effects, you can start with just two; reverb and chorus. 

You can use both of these to your advantage, especially when writing melodies. Reverb can create a lot of space in your mix. These can be used to make sparse and lonely textures. With chorus, you can create choir-like qualities in your chords to encompass your song’s sonic space. 

Master the Art of Tension and Release

Music works on the basic concept of tension and release. You build up tension throughout the duration of the song and release it near the end. Tension helps your listener focus on the piece, and release gives them the gratification they need. 

There’s no better tool to experiment with emotions than using these concepts. It’s common to use them to surpass expectations or establish certain moments. Either way, you’re looking at a profound effect.

If you’re looking to add them to your song, there are two ways to do it. You can either inject them in your chords by using consonance and dissonance. Or you can make it a part of your progression by altering your song’s cadence. However you decide to do it; it’s a no brainer how this concept drives a strong emotional response that can be added to your piece. 

The Best Artists for Inspiration to Write Sad Music 

There are some artists out there that are truly adept at writing a piece of music that has the ability to convey a lot of emotion. If you want to write sad music, something like breakup songs, then there are plenty of artists that you can use as sources of inspiration to create a truly beautiful song. So, who are these artists?

  • Chris Martin
  • Taylor Swift
  • Sam Smith 
  • Billie Elilish
  • Fleetwood Mac
  • Dua Lipa
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Kurt Cobain
  • Michael Jackson
  • Lana Del Rey
  • Selena Gomez 
  • Bradley Cooper 
  • Bruce Springsteen 

How to Write an Emotional Song: Step by Step

If you want to write a truly heartbreaking song, there are a few specific steps that you should try to follow, so let’s take a look. 

  1. The first thing that you always need to do is to familiarize yourself with the various components of a song. This includes the verses, the chorus, and the bridge. In most songs, all of the verses will have the same melody, but with differing lyrics, with most verses even having the same amount of syllables. You then have the chorus of the song, which is generally repeated either three or four times, and this will always have the same melody too. The bridge is what produces a break in between the other two elements of the song, and it generally has a different melody from the verses and the choruses. 
  2. The next thing that you need to do, especially as a beginner songwriter, is to create a simple melody. Remember that the melodies of songs can be very simple, yet still produce a lot of emotion and feeling. You should use your guitar or piano to experiment with various chord progressions to see what kind of sound works for you. You can always analyze what the chord progressions of other famously sad and emotional songs are like. Remember that you don’t need to have your melody completely written before you start writing lyrics, as you will likely adjust both, one according to the other, along the way.
  3. The next tip to writing a sad and emotionally powerful song is to try to use the minor, especially the minor third, for your melodies. This third minor tone is scientifically proven to feel sad and to convey a lot of emotions in songs. It’s the perfect way to go to write sad songs. 
  4. If you want to write what will be one of the best sad songs of all time, another good tip is to listen to some of the saddest songs out there to see what they sound like. Of course, the goal here is not to copy those songs, but rather to find inspiration from them. Listening to other such emotional songs can also help provide you with good ideas in terms of the melodies, verses, and other components of the song. 
  5. The next step here is actually start writing your lyrics. Here, we strongly recommend starting with some free writing. By this, mean you should start creating a set of lyrics by focusing on those things that make you sad, those that make you feel emotional and want to cry. Using your own personal experiences and emotions can be very helpful in terms of finding the right inspiration for lyrics. Here, you are really just writing down your thoughts and feelings.
  6. Before you start focusing on exact lyrics, make an outline of how many verses, choruses, and bridges you will have, or if you will have a bridge at all. Remember that your outline doesn’t even need to have full sentences. This is nothing more than a rough sketch of what your song will look like. Here, you may also want to start thinking about the number of syllables that your verses will have. 
  7. A great tip to follow when you are in this part of the song writing process is to focus on the connotations or second meanings that your words might have. You always want to consider exactly what people might hear when they listen to your words, especially in terms of those secondary meanings. Think about how your song will make your audience feel. 
  8. If you plan on writing an emotionally charged song, two things that you may want to use in your lyrics are metaphors and similes. Once you have picked a specific emotion that you want to convey, using similes and metaphors can be great ways to actually get those messages across. Sad songs usually always incorporate these elements in one way or another. 
  9. When writing a heartbreaking song, you should go back to those favorite songs you listened to before to see what the musical arraignment of those songs is like. Here, you want to figure out the tempo that these songs use as inspiration for your own. At this time, you also want to look at the actual sheet music for these sad songs, as this can help provide you with inspiration for the sheet music that you are going to write. 
  10. Now is the time for some experimentation. Here, you should slowly play around with finding the right keys, tones, and chords to match the emotions in your song. Just strum your guitar and try to create a chord progression that helps to convey the emotions in your songs. When all has been said and done, you can then try singing your song out loud to see what it sounds like, get some feedback, and then make adjustments as needed. 

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