How the heck do people write serious and emotional songs?!?

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I've been listening to some gorgeous, genuinely touching songs on 50/90 lately, full of sincere emotion, and I truly think they're absolutely terrific! But when I sit down to try to write something serious myself, it always feels maudlin and silly. It's not that I'm an emotionless robot -- really, I promise, I cried when Tony Stark died as much as anyone! -- but maybe my songwriting neural paths just are not wired that way? Or I just have to try harder and force myself through, however silly I feel (maybe it's a defense mechanism)?

Does anyone else have a hard time writing seriously emotional songs? Does anyone who gravitates towards writing such songs ever have a hard time writing something more frivolous (if you want to)? I should probably just write what I feel like writing and have fun, since fun is the only reason I'm doing this. But maybe I'm selling myself short by not pushing myself harder thematically.

TONY STARK DIED?!?!?

When I've done it, it's usually a very sincere fake. Smile

By that, I mean that I can write emotional songs if I imagine myself in someone else's place. For me, that usually means some fictional character.
That may not be helpful -- it may not even be healthy -- but it's an approach.

@Fuzzy - ummm... sorry, I guess I should've said "spoilers"? Smile

I would argue that often it's harder to write a funny song than a serious one.
Like you, @OdilonGreen, I too rarely write "serious" tunes; my brain doesn't work that way.
I think that if you force yourself to write in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it might sound inauthentic.
I'm hardwired to find the humour in life.
To each his own, I guess.
We can all use more funny!!

I think it's determined by which of your own emotional narratives you want to express. That in turn is determined by experiences.

For me, my funny songs come from a strong sense of humour, which probably originated as somewhat of a defense mechanism. I'm leaning into more serious stuff this year, because I've finally processed the crap I've been through enough to turn it around and make art instead of pain.

In both cases, it's about what I want to express based on life experiences. It still requires effort, mind you.

If you want to write different types of songs, I'd recommend channelling different emotions/memories. But what do I know?

You make me smile [@OdolinGreen] and for that I am truly grateful. Your comedic genius in songwriting is inspirational!

The ancient greeks have defined the emotional forms which make impact - tragedy or comedy - and every song falls into a mixture between these 2. Sometimes it's worth repeating it, since they repeat anyway

Thanks for your insights, everyone! Lots to think about, and fundamentally I guess I think @nerd jealous is right when he says "when you want to write a serious song, you'll know it." No need to force the issue.

Plus, to be frank, I don't know that my "singing voice" (such as it is) is suited to anything serious. Any time I try to sing anything, I always sound like I'm being semi-sarcastic or winking (at least that's how I sound to me). This may be a "chicken and the egg" issue - maybe I wouldn't sound that way to myself if I was singing something very emotional - but I kind of feel like no matter how serious the song, I would sound like I wasn't taking it very seriously at all, which would kind of undercut the effect.

@OdilonGreen,what? Tony died? OMG, what's next? Are you gonna tell us that Dumbledore died too? JK, I *know* he couldn't die, right? Right? RIGHT?

As for advice on writing touching songs I only have one word of advice...ACTING!

https://youtu.be/AtnBumt82_Y?t=82

@johnstaples, um… well… I think we should talk. And while we’re at it, we may want to discuss Old Yeller too…

@OdilonGreen well that sounds good. I'd love to hear how Old Yeller is doing these days. That silly dawg. Prolly chasin' granny's chickens and rollin' in mud!

With great difficulty, for me. Opening up isn’t the easiest thing. But I feel it’s worth the effort because the songs I love, the ones that I listen to over and over, are ones that touch on some kind of vulnerability.

I write some songs on serious-sounding premises, but a lot of times they are "fiction". I'm not taking a story from my life, I'm making something up about someone. That is easier for me.

There are songs I've written that really come from my true-life experience. But a lot of the time I'm trying to express a real emotion that I have felt using a fictional story to get it across.

That, to me, makes it easier.

We're taught (the older generation) that extreme emotions are taboo. For me, the longer I'm in therapy and counselling for my past traumas, I'm learning to access and sit with those uncomfortable emotions. I've found the best way (for me - your milage may vary) is to express them in lyrics or songs - however it's taken me a very long time with being comfortable with letting those creations public. It's the same premise as answering "I'm fine" when people ask how you are - whether it's the truth or not. Some of us answer, "No - I"m not, but thank you for asking - I'm getting better!" Smile Keep writing what you like to write. Maybe you can use writing the "tougher stuff for you" as an exercise when you feel in a rut. Peace.

a thought or two-- writing 'serious/emotional songs' is something that can be much more personal, and make the writer/singer feel alot more vulnerable. It feels like the stakes are higher, too-- if they feel like they're 'right' they can be tremendously satisfying to write and sing, but if you feel they misfired, so to speak, it can feel like a horrible experience.

I don't do those kinds of songs alot, but I definitely do them (my last album on bandcamp, drawn from my FAWM songs this past Feb., has two songs about, illness and death of family members that I'm really proud that I was able to write and sing. I don't always want to live in that world, but I'm really glad I did them both.

Interestingly, sometimes I'll write something I thought was a disaster, and it ends up striking a chord in the listener and make me feel I'm glad i went out on a limb- and sometimes the opposite, I'll think 'wow, i think this works' and months or years later on I'll listen and think 'that was horrible'. All that being said, I'm glad i've gone out there sometimes and done the more risky and personal thing by writing and singing that stuff. It helps if you can leaven some of the heaviness with some humor, too.. of that, one of my favorite practitioners is Loudon Wainwright III. It's a skill, tho, that's been used by all the best, from Richard Rogers/Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Hank Williams, and so many more...

hope that helps!

The key thing for me is to never be too definite about whether I'm serious or not.

I think @3tdoan and the others who have said you have to be willing to make yourself vulnerable are correct. A serious song, whether fiction or non-fiction, requires you to connect to it emotionally and be open enough to express those emotions in public. That can be scary for people. You’re really exposing yourself when you do that. I write lots of serious songs. Apparently I have no problem exposing myself in public. :P But I also write funny songs and all kinds of other songs. None of them seem to be harder than the others. The muse just hands me different things at different times. So as they said earlier, just write what you want when you want. It will come to you at the right time. Meanwhile, your funny songs make me and loads of other folks smile and laugh, so thanks. We need those happy making tunes.

cts's picture
Donatedcts

The serious songs that I write most of the time are fictionalized. There are elements of true-life moments, feelings, opinions, etc., but I don't fully reveal everything about me in a song. It's not that I'm leery; it's just doesn't seem necessary for me to do so.

Specifically in answer to the questions, i have no problem writing emotional songs, yes its harder for me to write frivolous songs, but i just decided for performing and for the kids that i needed to do the frivolous ones so i worked at it and it is now easier.

I would do what you do (which i enjoy) unless you feel some compelling reason to change and only you know the answer to that!

I should clarify: When I say to use your personal emotional narrative to get more "feel" in the song, I don't mean telling a story that literally happened to you.

I mean, take the emotions and turn them into a musical narrative. It could be a piano piece, something with words, doesn't matter. Tell the emotions rather than the events, basically.

Lots of good comments above so I'll try not to repeat except as relates to my songwriting experience. I have always struggled with writing emotion packed songs, including songs about people I am close to. In ten years a handful have just spilled out in a time limit writing session but usually strong emotions put up a wall to my creativity. My way around that wall is to either write around the edges or distance myself in some fashion from the subject. Sometimes I write in heavily cloaked metaphor or humor. Sometimes I write in the third person and/or change enough details, names, places, time period, etc. that the listener would not recognize it. Example, ten years ago I wrote a song about my parents and their failed relationship. However I had changed the details and settings so much that when I played it for each of them, long after their divorce, I am pretty sure that they did not recognize themselves in the song characters. This past FAWM I wanted to write fourteen or more songs about the relationship with my wife. I wrote maybe four that were just about our relationship but nowhere near the Me and You Babe cliche filled sappy love song (although I did intentionally write a cliche filled sappy one years ago as an exercise and my wife loved it). Another eight FAWM songs included our relationship as a connected part but our relationship was not as the main theme of the song. Four more that were tangental to our relationship at best.

I'm still working on this myself. So far of the ten I have written lyrics for this 50/90, two may fall into this category. One is a sort of serious yet somewhat cloaked emotional song that sort of fits with one theme, and one is a funny angle on my relationship with my wife. Both resulted from skirmishes and not directly from my idea list.

very pertinent thread for me. i mentioned in a post on fb fawm group that this year i am working more on bringing that personal/vulnerability into my songs... not that i don't within my humour - i always try to be genuine, but there is a huge area that i have always been too "squeamish" to go to. Despite my reputation for humour i have suffered from anxiety/depression and BPD (EUPD) for all my adult life - spells in hospital, suicide attempts, on disability due to it etc. Humour is a lifeline to me and i try to be genuine within that, but i always feel that i am conflicted with the extremes within myself. i have recently joined some zoom therapy groups that have a real creative focus and i am bringing my songwriting to that, and i also want to bring that to my songwriting to unite myself a bit more and not feel such a walking contradiction. Not that i want to be morbid or depressing, not at all, i would still like to have my trademark humour there, just working on areas where i go "AH! i could never say that!" Writing this in itself feels like coming out. but we have known each other a long time now right? I have done a few "emotional" songs but these have usually been some steps removed from me, eg about someone else - in a story form- and i have lines in my songs that hint at it, but i always add a twist of humour to make it palatable (to me). so yes i struggle with serious songs, there is also my own perception of what is expected of me, so easing into it where i can...

My standard answer is, it depends on where the music takes me. Then it’s a matter of taking snippets of life drama and working those into some kind of verses. I’m oversimplifying of course.

Thank you everyone for the very thoughtful responses so far! I obviously have not been responding directly, but I have definitely been reading each and every comment and am very appreciative!

I remember having this conversation with a close and very honest friend. I told her that I thought I just wasn’t any good at writing serious music. She told me that I probably just hadn’t figured out how to, and she was right. I struggle with expressing heavier emotions… especially verbally, and when I tried to do it in a comfortable way it came out very cheesy and inauthentic. I stopped worrying so much about it. I was always pretty good at tapping into deeper stuff without words. Loved playing through the 2nd movement of every trumpet concerto I knew. I like writing instrumental stuff. That progressed to writing traditional ballads. I love story telling and exploring heavier things through story telling. I’m never going to write deeply personal songs about being rejected or lonely or the one that got away because those aren’t my deep personal concerns and someone else has already written those songs. Find things that you want to say. That’s really all it’s about. And whether they’re funny or serious or personal or not… that comes out of you saying what you want to say.

I don't write them. The problem I have is leaving comments on them. I am just not equipped to furnish comments like "Seething with truth and raw emotion" and "Burnished with sadness and naked beauty" without being insincere. FAWM this year had some corkers, I don't mean serious songs, I mean pretentious claptrap left on them as comments.

When I started playing the guitar I was into the blues. It took me a long time to realize that if I stopped trying to play the guitar and tried to let out what I felt I had a much better connection with the audience. I don't know if that helps you or not but it helped me.

My other bit of advice is to just do it. As with anything, the more you do it the easier it is to find your voice.

"It is much better to be funny than clever-- and much harder."
-- Cole Porter

obviously, he didn't really live by his own advice, as he is likely t he most clever of the classic american songwriters.

i consciously try to inject humor in my music because i internalized the points for writing a sermon from going to church so often when young (no more than 3 points, with a repeated summation, which equates to 3 verses and a chorus; have a repeated phrase to drive the points home (the hook), and try to include a joke to lower people's defenses and make them more comfortable). it was only recently that i realized that i used sermons as my model for my songs, but it explains why i am so preachy, and why i so often go past the three-minute mark. it's truly funny that the sermon model includes humor in its approach, because that is what i use to try to dilute my tendency to moralize.

and, per cole porter, i often try to be clever far too often. a bit is ok, but it is best when only you get it. i wrote one song where each verse was analogous to the three things you can know about a particle-- speed, location, and direction. i was quite pleased that my one comment on it that year did not recognize my inspiration, even though i laid into the conceit quite heavily.

i write serious stuff way too easily, but maybe that's because i have come to realize my 2 biggest album influences are the wall and the joshua tree. yikes!

Hev's picture
DonatedHev

A lot of great points here and also shared experiences for those of us who find it difficult to be vulnerable and express our feelings - I’m just beginning to learn. I just wanted to add that you commented that your singing style might not suit serious topics, but I disagree! I think you have a classic style of delivery which can be used (a bit like other speaker-singers like Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen) to bring out the less easily accessed elements of stories, like humour: humour is actually really hard to do! But then you could also move towards pathos, horror, regret, lust... any strong and possibly darker emotion, quite easily I reckon! But like other people say above, maybe the key is knowing how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable - enough to share. Good luck

I guess I'm squeamish too, I can rarely write emotional lyrics without feeling stilted. I'm too much of a cynic/clown in my own lyric output anyway )and that arises as compensation for my poor singing voice. Make the bad singing the star!) . But I can be grabbed by others who CAN write such things which resonate with my own experiences, not as bad/sad/mad as many on here but bad/sad/mad enough in their own way. And then the music just...pours out. Then i have a choke factor trying to sing it to get it on recording. i do find Flying Tadpole nonsense a safer kennel to lurk in.

Just letting people know that this thread has inspired at least one song. Smile

http://fiftyninety.fawmers.org/song/48715

If songs can bring up/out emotions in songwriters, I guess songwriters automatically would be able to write emotional songs- music only songs included. Of course, emotions can be somewhat hidden or tucked away, but I'm sure they're there and they can be brought up.

I think a song like 'Gouge away' by The Pixies will not be considered to be an emotional song by many (at least: lyrically), but it's one of the most emotional songs to me I've ever heard, especially performed live. So also, what is emotional to one isn't emotional to others.

I've been thinking about this topic; why do "serious and emotional" songs have to have lyrics and singing?
I have actually produced a couple of serious and emotional tunes this summer which are instrumentals or actually use someone else's dialogue I've found in various places.

@Fuzzy I think words help but are certainly not a requirement.

Example:
Santana's "Samba Pa Ti" is an instrumental that I thought communicated emotion really well back when I first heard it.
The first one-third of it still gives me chills. Smile

I resonated with this topic, but in a sort of different way: All my songs tend to be upbeat. I have a hard time writing really dark stuff. I think, as has been pointed out, it's about being scared of being vulnerable. I can write more heart-centered stuff (hell, I wrote a song about bullying in the style of a medieval ballad for FAWM this past year), but it's difficult for me to go to the dark places in writing.

I am in the group that believes it is all about your headspace. You know words, you know songwriting, and you know your emotions. Have you suffered any devastating or heart wrenching experiences in life? If yes, write that and revise until it’s proper songwriting.

An example: My mother put me out in a blizzard when I was a child and let me scream and cry on the porch, beating on the door, for a few hours when I was like 11 years old. That really has affected me all throughout my life.

So;

There I was, left in the cold
Fists balled up, nowhere to go
Each strike with less force
I was forced to feel fear
Each strike with less force
I knew less love was now here

That’s just round one. Might not seem very serious or sincere, but the emotions I’m feeling definitely are. Let’s try again:

A cold winter storm
And a cold winter heart
Claimed my innocence that day
I didn’t know where to start
All of these emotions
Running through my veins
My heart would never heal
I’d never be the same

You can judge which one is better or worse...but draw on those emotions, revise until you reach your ideal destination lyrically and then voila!

Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t...but that’s my advice Smile

@Fuzzy Opposite for me. Funny comes from life experiences. Making serious romantic themes, I put myself into a movie script, and imagine the actor on stage playing a role.

I have read many comments and there are some great suggestions. Personally, I think, if you are enjoying writing then you should keep doing what you like. Why change what you enjoy?

If your goal is to become a better writer, and writing emotional lyrics fits the bill, then there is good advice here.

You can try to be empathetic. Write from another's perspective (I have done this and it had brought me to tears. Granted it was also personal to me , and only one of two times this has occurred).

You can dig deep and pour our your heart and soul. That is hard.

Sometimes a little something that is special can be reused. Use it as a source, but in a new way. I have done this and it worked very well. Find a memory. Find a hook and build on that - something new.

I understand trying to grow as a writer. Hope you find what works for you!

I like serious songs with jokes in. That's why I'm such a fan of Stephen Merritt - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rtjfqVwXCYw is a totally random example. I think its serious and funny at the same time. May not be to your taste though, not sure!

I agree with Valerie's assessment. I think you just have to be open to what's going on in your head, and then express it like you would to a good friend. Don't try to make it sound "lyrical." Just honest. That's what grabs the listener.

as was mentioned earlier in this thread (by i think @hypnotist) sometimes 'serious songs with jokes' are a great way to go- and while there was a link to a great steven merrit (magnetic fields) song, for me, (and maybe not everyone) the king of this approach might be Loudon Wainwright. In any event, I just wrote a kind of 'country weeper' of a song, serious but also a bit sly, hopefully. http://fiftyninety.fawmers.org/song/51316