This is an excerpt of the book Processing Creativity: The Tools, Practices And Habits Used To Make Music You’re Happy With. If you would like to download an excerpt or buy a copy you can do so here.
How Emotion Is Communicated In A Song
Figuring out how to convey emotion is one of the secrets of great songwriters. Artists are compelled to make music that incites an emotional reaction. Reacting to the chords, tempos, arrangements, sound effects, tones and other variables of a song all goes into how you craft a song you want to hear. When writing a song, the writer will think of the emotion they want to convey until it's fully realized.
The subtlest changes in tempo, rhythm and the thousands of other variables in performance can all accentuate or diminish the level of emotion that's felt from a song. This accumulation of subtleties is what leads to the song’s resonance. Look no further than the way great producers and songwriters talk about how they compose music. One of the best examples of this is an episode of the podcast Song Exploder, where producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Adele, Vampire Weekend, Charli XCX) talks about developing a Carly Rae Jepsen song, describing how each choice affects the emotion of a song. Every synth pad and arpeggiation expresses an emotion that's either closer to or further from the intended emotion. Each choice made, whether it's a tone knob, rhythm or single note modulation, either brings you further or closer to an emotion you're trying to convey.
Accumulating the subtleties of these emotions compositionally to exactly where they should fall on the emotional spectrum applies to every single genre. The choices of every detail – from the velocities of the synth hits, to how much compression is used, to how many vocal flaws are left in, to how organic the production is – will greatly determine the emotional reaction both you and listeners get from your song. No matter how quantized the beats and melody are, emotion is still conveyed.
Authenticity Is Potent
Authenticity has always been what draws listeners into songs, but today it’s even more important. As I write this book throughout 2016, we see reality TV and YouTube stars on the rise, plus musicians who show their authentic, vulnerable emotions as opposed to the badly acted, implausible scenarios comprising the majority of TV and movies of yesteryear. The public has responded to two politicians who are perceived as authentic while those who are scripted are regularly derided for it, since we’ve grown to disdain those who think we can’t see past their act. Bret Easton Ellis calls this a post-Empire world where when we fake our emotions to the public, everyone can see it since we now know what real, genuine emotion looks like. The veil of covering how we really feel with contrived, polite, PG-rated versions of ourselves has been lifted, and there's no going back.
Those in the public eye can no longer hide behind press releases or sanctioned interviews if they want to connect with an audience. Instead, they need to be honest to make connections through relatability on social media each day. The audience has grown callous to the fake facades of the past through the massive democratization of celebrity that's occurred in a world where gatekeepers have been thwarted by avenues such as YouTube that elevate authentic expression. Today, authenticity is currency; the more you expose, the more you're rewarded.
Music is pulling back that veil each year, and the evidence is seen as lyrics get more honest. Instead of obscuring depression and drug use in lyrical code, the nuance has been stripped, leaving no cover for songwriters to deny what everyone can see in plain sight. Talk of drug use and depression grace the red carpet of the MTV VMAs instead of the “everything’s fine” poses of yesteryear, which would then be proved to be untrue, just as our instincts told us. What used to leak out in rare behind-the-scenes exposé is now front and center as the basis of what artists share to the world.
We've all experienced a friend wearing clothing that doesn't fit who they are ― we sense the lack of authenticity as we stare with a questioning eye. Just the same, when a song lacks authenticity, our BS meters have been honed to react poorly to the frauds that litter our world. When we hear an imitation of the elements of another song, it confirms a lack of authenticity we already sensed. It clues listeners into an act that isn’t expressing their own emotions by trying to gain fame through imitation.
Since we're making music for ourselves first, it's important to understand that when you hold back from your authentic expression, it's less resonant inside of you as well. You are your own first audience member, which is why finding new ways to make music resonant within you is the only way it will connect with others.
A lack of authenticity is heard when a singer delivers a stale performance lacking resonance. One of the reasons we need to write from a place of vulnerability is because without it, the singer won't have an emotion to express when they sing. By imitating someone else, you aren't focusing on translating what you feel into music; you're focused on copying someone, which has no emotional resonance. Jake Bugg talks of having to revisit the emotions he's felt when he performs a song to give it resonance. This practice gets confusing since singers can be singing another writer's lyrics, but the only way a song is delivered with resonance is when that singer can find a connection to the lyrics to emote with.
Vulnerability Allows Us To Connect With Others
“Vulnerability is the essence of connection and connection is the essence of existence.” ― Leo Christopher
An important part of this equation is the importance of vulnerability. When we inaccurately portray our emotions, we hinder our ability to connect with others. Being able to say what you truly feel in its full, uncensored feeling allows that connection. Just as listeners can perceive when you're inauthentic, when you lack the ability to be vulnerable, it can be sensed that you're not saying what you're really feeling in its entirety. Writing about an emotion that's safe to express or not telling the whole truth of your feeling out of fear of others’ reactions hinders the ability to connect with others who are feeling the same as you. When we become vulnerable by sharing our truth without fear, there's more to connect with by expressing the very real emotions we’re scared to communicate.
For those who don’t understand the power of vulnerability, it’s how we form deep connections with one another. When you talk with someone and hold back the truth, it usually leads to small talk that you forget in no time. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable by saying a deeper truth with someone else that understands it, this leads to great conversations. You may even remember that conversation for years to come as it gives you a new understanding of your own life.
To connect with listeners, they must be able to empathize with the emotion you're expressing. The only way to make a listener feel emotional resonance is connecting with them, and this connection is only made deeper when you bring vulnerability into your music. We can only connect with emotions we've had ourselves and the joy of connection is this understanding of each other. With vulnerability we allow ourselves to say an emotion that's relatable. How often have we heard a song and found the way someone expresses a familiar emotion with a new genius twist that emotionally hits us? If you sing a song where you’re hiding what you feel, how will that resonate with anyone?
This connection is why some songs don't resonate with some people yet resonate highly with others. The connection to a song is only formed if the listener understands the emotion that's conveyed. Friends can be puzzled when they love a song, yet their best friend who they connect with on so many levels doesn't understand it. Most of the time the answer lies in that the person who doesn't feel it doesn't experience the emotion the way the song is conveying it. The tools the musician uses to express that emotion may not be the way a friend feels that same emotion. Since we don’t all have the same experiences of feeling different colors of emotions as our friends, our connections to the emotions expressed in songs won’t always be the same.