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.

The Alignment Of Lyrical Emotion With Music

 The decisions made to further a song's emotional resonance can be difficult to match with the emotion you intend to convey. The most common pitfall of this task is that a set of emotional lyrics are poorly matched to music that doesn't convey the same emotion as the lyrics are conveying. When a songwriter is limited in their output, they may only have a few skeletons to match to a set of lyrics. Finding this match is one of the most important considerations in making your music as resonant as possible.

 While having a hauntingly dark lyrical premise matched with gleeful music can be good fun, more songs suffer from a bad match of lyrics and music than is often discussed. If you polled ten songwriters on whether they write lyrics first and music second or vice versa you'll usually end up with an even split. You'll then even get a few who come up with a song title and try to make the lyrics or music fit to it next or even do both at once. How you get there's a personal preference, but making sure that the two are acting as one is the most important part of actualizing emotionally resonant music.

In an interview I did with Ezra Kire of Morning Glory, he talked about his inability to "force a song." He talks about how "every lyric set has a perfect match for each song emotionally." He says he has to write music and then finds the lyrics that pair perfectly with it. Finding this pairing and being patient for it is crucial to the process. Some songwriters may find this match instantly; if it doesn't come, settling for a music and lyric pairing that doesn't fit emotionally is the death of a song’s potency.

Emotional Elaboration

            One of the toughest parts about executing a song properly is figuring out what to add to it. When there’s intent behind your music, it actually becomes easier to elaborate upon your skeleton. By narrowing the options of what can be done to specific emotions, you gain an added focus.

When considering options for a song, it can be helpful to consider options that go with the emotional imagery you’re trying to convey. If you're trying to convey extreme loneliness in a song, having a doubled vocal or a gang vocal or another person singing can feel less lonely from the imagery it invokes. Conversely, a reverb that mimics being alone in an empty bedroom can take this imagery further. If you want that song to be lonely but comforting at the end of the song, introducing that gang vocal or duet can convey the imagery of no longer being alone.

Delving deeper to find how to elaborate on an emotion is often about how you find the attributes that give your song even more of the emotion you want to convey. If you make a throwback blues music recording in a pristine studio, this is the opposite of this practice. Instead, record in a dusty old shack where you can hear an old and dingy sounding room tone that can help further that image. In dance music, they'll put in the sounds of partying to get more of the party vibe (my favorite use of this is the first Basement Jaxx record).

Justin Meldal Johnson said this of producing M83’s highly influential record, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming.

“We were always looking for an emotional reason for doing something, so the production was always informed by an emotional choice ... At one point in the record an example of doing it from an emotional standpoint and having that be the generator of ideas ... When we were overwhelmed by what we had to do, we went down to the craft store and got these huge pieces of paper and on the paper we lay out these inspirational touchstones that relate to the song such as a piece of prose or a picture, the names of movies or records and they would get added to gradually as time goes on. It’s this collage of child-like guidance and reference of source material.”

This is a perfect example of emotional elaboration leading to a highly emotional record. Accumulating subtle details that compliment the emotion you are trying to convey like stacking up small pieces of hay that build to a haystack is how a song that’s highly resonant is built. With each detail you find that can help paint a clearer picture of the emotion you’re trying to convey, the more resonant the song becomes.

One of my favorite ways to get more emotional resonance is to think of ten questions to ask about a song. This helps us develop ideas on what choices we could make in line with the song's emotional content. Recently, when working on a song about losing one's mind, we'd decided to evoke a chaotic sound where sounds sneak up on you, so you feel disorientated. Here's a few questions we asked along with the answers we came up with:

Q: What vocal sounds would be in the background of a crazy person’s mind? A: Yelling “Hey” at random times that are very close to the end of verse lines.

Q: How does crazy sound rhythmically? A: Lots of parts with double whole notes and then sudden 32nd notes at times. Random bars that change time.

Q: What does crazy sound like dynamically? A: Loud at very random points with quiet.

Q: What does crazy sound like tonally? A: Big contrasts of bright to dark, so we need to have parts that have a very bright then dark EQ.

Q: Should the song end with a resolution or is it better that you don't know if you're sane again? A: Leave it on a note that it's OK but could always go back.

Emotional Decisions In The Most Technical Aspects Of Music

Many think that the emotional response you get from music ends with the musicians, but emotional choices extend all through the recording. The compression ratio you use determines how hard a sound feels to a listener. If it's set too hard, it can feel emotionally violent in a gentle song, which detracts from its resonance. A microphone with less treble can calm a hard, aggressive sound whereas one with a strong midrange can excite that same sound. An empty room ambiance on a recording sounds more lonely than a tight recording that sounds in a vacuum. These details often get overlooked and kill the potency of a song in the recording process.

Many internet commenters confuse "the loudness war" of mastering for being about volume, but really the pushed level of volume is an emotional choice. As the transients are clipped off a master, more information is pushed to the front of the stereo image. When this level is optimized in a record, it gives an emotion of more intensity to many listeners. If it's overdone, the recording becomes distorted while lacking in dynamics, which makes it unpleasing to listen to and less exciting as the songs sound flat without the dynamic accents that bring excitement to the music. Finding the right balance for this loudness where the frequencies are excited by distortion or left alone to keep the sound pure is an emotional decision for those who understand it, not one of competing to gain more volume.

Being Intentional In Your Creative Choices

There's a moment in every project where a collaborator comes to a sudden realization, "all of our songs ____ the same way." When this happens, it's always a jarring moment where collaborators are eager to fix the problem as fast as possible. The whole room realizes this flaw is undeniably true so a change must be made. The most common instinct is whatever song is newest must change, but most often this is the wrong approach. An important part of drafting is looking at your creative body of work to make the appropriate changes to the right candidate. It’s best to figure out which songs of the group fall victim to this similarity and pick out which ones are weakest to see if they can then benefit from some further thought. This is why it’s important to draft according to the body of work you’ll be releasing.

This is not to say that similarity should always be varied for variety's sake. A formula can be a style that works for a record, whereas other times it sounds monotonous. What would have happened if a producer told Nirvana that "too many songs go from quiet to loud" or if Refused or Beck were told that they were too diverse? A record's focus or wideness can make or break it, depending on intent. What’s crucial is the consideration of the similarity or variety to make sure it elaborates upon the intent.

When explaining why The Cure’s classic record, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is emotionally all over the place, Robert Smith says he “likes records that take you all over the place just like a horror movie will have comedy and sex in it.” While many of my favorite records are diverse like Prince’s Purple Rain, I tend to find I have the most emotional resonance with a consistent mood like Purity Ring’s Shrines. Regardless, contemplating your choices with an intent allows you to make decisions that are in line with the emotion you're trying to convey. When you hear that a musician chopped a great song from a release, it's usually because they're trying to conjure a mood that brings an emotion throughout a release. They want this release to reflect an emotion along with an idea inside them. Sometimes a great song may be best to stand alone or see the light of day on a future release instead of having it cloud a coherent emotion on a record.

Do Your Tastes Align With The Record You Want To Make?

 An exercise I'll regularly do with artists is to have them make me a Spotify playlist of their twenty favorite songs. It can sometimes be too chaotic to include a whole band, so I'll try to keep it to the leader or two main creative minds in the group. I then ask for the five records they've listened to the most in their life. Often, upon listening to these examples, I'll notice these are nothing like the songs they've chosen to put on their record. There will be three feedback-filled noise tracks of screaming, yet none of their favorite records or songs have that. Even more common is all of their favorite songs have choruses that repeat, but they have countless songs with little repetition.

 This part of the process is not as much about making their record be a direct reflection of their tastes as much as it is making sure they're considering their decisions. If the artist's intent is to make a record that sounds like falling in love where it gets pretty and then sounds like a fight by the end, the three feedback noise tracks at the end of the album are very well justified. But if they want a record that's "singles front to back," it's time to consider writing more songs that are more conventional. This process vets that we're making a record that's more than "here are the best 12 songs we wrote," allowing reflection to make a record that they would enjoy.

See It Another Way

Whenever we talk about geniuses, it’s said what makes them excel is that they ask better questions than others. While this goes across the board no matter field you talk about, with music you hear great artists have an ability to see things differently than others. Producer Noah Shebib talks about Drake this way: "Drake can barely tap 8th notes of a hi-hat on a pad, yet he can hear when a vocal is ten milliseconds off since Drake says he ‘hears the space between the beats, not the beats.'"

Oftentimes finding a different perspective on a song can lead to the biggest breakthroughs. Whether it's questioning sacred cows or asking what influences can you bring out to shake up the norms of the music you make, figuring out how to question what you're doing in different ways can lead to more interesting outcomes. When trying to get inspired, one of the best tricks is to question norms. Does the chorus have to be the biggest part of the song? Is this song better played on an instrument you don't normally use? This re-thinking of the boundaries can help you find the spice you need in a song to make it feel resonant.

Focus And Presence

 While we talk about trusting your gut to draft your songs, at times you can't even hear your gut. New age hippies talk all day about "being present" but it's a real thing. If you're distracted, texting on your phone, thinking about adult world responsibilities or anything other than feeling your song, you'll miss the gut alerting you to problems. When I began to produce records, I had a hard time focusing and self-misdiagnosed myself as having ADD. The truth was I had to get used to listening intently by exercising a muscle to get better at evaluating creative judgments. In time, I had no trouble focusing while learning to trust my lack of comfort when an element of a song felt wrong. The more you can focus, the more you'll be able to be alerted by gut impulses that can help actualize your vision of a song.

 While many use meditation to allow them to focus, that's not the only way to get there. Closing your eyes and putting the phone out of sight to give a song your full attention while working is enough to get many in an attentive enough state to properly analyze a song. I also find deep attention to be contagious; the effect of having one focused person in the room gets even the least focused members to a more focused state. This is one of the most game-changing practices that allow emotional responses to dictate a record's choices.

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.