I was surprised to realize how frequently the question “How do you write a song from the heart?” is asked in songwriting forums.
Music expresses emotions. And when people talk of the heart, they are referring to emotions.
How can a song NOT come from the heart unless you purposely try not to express your emotions in the song?
So, before I answer how to write a song from the heart, I’ll rephrase the question to clarify what it most likely means:
“How can I express my emotions in song?”
This article will answer this question, as well as define what “writing a song from the heart” actually means.
Should you write a song from the heart or the mind?
The emotions you express in a song come from the heart, but the songwriting skills and techniques you use to write the song are learned through the mind.
Thus it’s not a question of heart versus mind since both have to be working together in the songwriting process.
Problems arise when there are barriers between the emotions the heart wants to express and what the mind can translate into a song.
Thus, in this lesson we’ll explore what these barriers are so that by removing them, your mind is free to express what your heart desires through music.
Barrier 1: No songwriting process
Many inexperienced songwriters believe they lack inspiration. We’ll talk about inspiration later on, but I don’t believe it’s the main reason beginner songwriters struggle to write from the heart.
The real issue is that they have no idea how to go about writing a song.
They are dealing with issues such as: Where should I begin writing the song? Should I play in a specific key? What exactly is a key? Is it necessary for me to write the bass and drum parts, or will a bassist and drummer figure out their parts? How fast should the song be?
When you’re dealing with all of this in your head, your mind is unable to focus on expressing emotions.
Many professional songwriters plan all of this in advance.
They know from where they’re going to start, what key they’ll play in, the tempo of the song, which parts they’ll write themselves and which they’ll leave to the performers and producers, and so on.
In other words, they have a process in place. In this lesson, I’ll walk you through a simple process you can use if you’re new to songwriting.
It should be noted that a songwriter’s process is not set in stone. Someone who usually begins writing a song with the lyrics or the melody may choose to begin with the chords in order to step outside of his comfort zone and create something new. A songwriter may decide to change the tempo or key of the song, or during parts of the song. However, in each case, the writer is following a process, is aware of what he is doing, and only changes the process to express his emotions in a different or better way.
Barrier 2: No songwriting skills
Songwriting is a craft that is developed by doing it (writing songs) and simultaneously developing a set of skills.
In this lesson, I show you what songwriting skills you’ll need to hone.
In today’s lesson, I’ll show you how you can write more from the heart and express your emotions more effectively by honing one of these skills.
“Learning music theory” is the skill I chose as an example.
Let’s say you know no music theory but can play major, minor, and dominant 7th chords on the guitar, switch from one chord to the other fluently, and hum a good tune over a chord progression.
Can you express your emotions in song with these abilities? Sure. There are good songwriters who know very little formal music theory but continue to improve their skills simply by writing a lot of songs.
However, if you understand the fundamentals of music theory, you could:
1. Decide on a key to play in.
2. Determine which scales and chords will sound good when played together in the chosen key. (Chords that are not in key, called chromatic chords are frequently used in songs. However if you’re a beginner in songwriting I suggest that you avoid them since they need to be handled carefully).
3. Choose a time signature that suits the style of your song.
4. See all rhythmic options you have available.
5. Give your song structure.
6. Use dissonance, but always end up resolving it into consonance.
7. To reinforce tonality, use the dominant 7th chord followed by the tonic chord (ex: G7 – C in the key of C major). This will let you use more dissonance during the song since the listener’s mind has already been conditioned to the tonality.
8. End phrases with different cadences to create the desired effect in the listener. Dominant to tonic cadence, such as G7-C, is just one type of cadence that leads to a sense of complete resolution. It is thus used to finish songs, among other things. Other cadences lead to half closure or deceive the mind that closure is on its way but hasn’t arrived yet, creating variety and surprise in the song.
9. Many other things.
Knowing where and how to use tonality, diatonic chord progressions, rhythmic elements, and song structure will not only help you write better songs, but also allow you to write more from the heart – because they free your brain from having to worry about all of this stuff and allows it to focus more on the emotions you want to express.
Some people mistakenly believe that learning music theory causes the opposite effect. That it is a set of rules that limit your creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth. You need to determine which notes and chords sound good together whether you understand the theory or not. Knowing the theory and applying it will provide you with a lot options for writing songs. It also relieves you of the burden of having to think about a lot of things which could be decided before you start writing, allowing your mind to focus on expressing emotions while writing.
Music theory is just one skill a songwriter should be learning and developing. The more you improve on all of the skills that a songwriter needs to develop, as well as write songs with whatever skills you have available, the sooner you will be able to write a song from the heart at will.
Barrier 3: Lack of Inspiration
This, I believe, is rarely the real issue.
You may not have any songwriting skills, no knowledge of music theory, no songwriting process, and can’t play a single chord on a guitar or piano, but you surely have emotions.
And anything that affects your emotions is a topic you’re motivated enough to write a song about.
“Last Night In Kyiv,” a song I plan to release soon, was inspired by footage of interviews with common people in Kyiv on the eve of the Russian invasion.
How does it feel to be dining with friends and family, knowing that the restaurant you’re eating at might not be there in a few days? Neither will all of your family and friends, and perhaps neither will you.
These thoughts sparked emotion, which sparked inspiration, and coming up with a song wasn’t difficult with the skills I’d honed over the years.
All you have to do to find constant songwriting material is take a mental note of anything that moves you emotionally. Anything that makes you laugh, cry, get angry, happy, sad, or elicits any emotion in you can inspire you to write a song.
Barrier 4: Self doubt
This is the most difficult of the four barriers to writing a song from the heart.
It’s not difficult to find a songwriting process, and while honing your songwriting skills takes time, it’s an enjoyable process.
Inspiration can be found anywhere.
Yet, even the most experienced songwriters can experience self-doubt and disrupt the creative process.
Here are some suggestions to help you deal with self-doubt.
1. Accept that self-doubt is normal and that, while it can creep in at any time, the more songs you write, the less power it will have over you.
2. Keep in mind that whatever you write can always be changed, fixed, or discarded. Never be afraid that your ideas will be mocked because no one will hear them until you decide to.
3. Some people are jerks, and some jerks mock other people’s work to feel good about themselves. Accept that the prick will always be present, that he will always be a prick, and that he will never write a hit. Don’t write for the jerks. Write for people who want your music to move their emotions.
4. Continue to hone your skills. Knowledge is confidence.
5. Write even when you doubt your abilities. Set a goal to, say “write the best song I can with the abilities I have in a month” and complete the song by the deadline even if you don’t feel inspired or confident. This will compel you to keep searching for inspiration until you find it. It will also help reduce self-doubt because you will begin to develop the confidence that even when you are unsure of yourself, you can compose anyway.
6. Speak positively to yourself about yourself.
Free flow between heart and mind
The heart is the source of inspiration, while the mind creates the music.
The more you remove the barriers between your emotions and what your mind is capable of creating, the more your songs will come from the heart.
Every time you learn some theory, write a song, analyze a song, or speak positively to yourself, you are breaking down these barriers, making it easier for your emotions to be expressed through music.
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