Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought.
Music is the most abstract of the arts. It affects us not on an intellectual, rational level but on a deep, instinctual level. It washes over us and affects us deeply and emotionally in ways that are difficult to explain. Think about the times a beat has got you tapping your feet before you even realized it. Or the way music is used in movies to heighten every kind of emotion you can name.
Music is the most direct route to the soul. That’s its power. That’s how it affects us. It says nothing specific and yet touches us in ways we can’t find words to express.
Our challenge as songwriters is to create music which expresses, in this deep instinctual way, something that matches what our lyric is trying to say. Unless there’s a specific reason otherwise, we want the music and lyric to say the same thing, albeit in different ways. When done properly, the music and lyrics add up to something far greater than the sum of their parts.
Think about Don’t Stop Believin’ and how those sturdy rocking piano chords which hold strong, drive forward and remind us not to lose faith. Or I Will Always Love You and the way the simple music lets the singer bare her soul. Or how virtually every melodic line in Gaga’s Poker Face is somehow holding something back, like a blank expression. Or the way Faithless’s Insomnia stays up all night. You probably have your own examples – most great songs do this in one way or another.
These songs work because the musical style complements and amplifies the song’s message. It’s not about tiny details – this melodic contour or this chord choice – but about big brush strokes – the tempo, the groove, the soundworld the music inhabits. It’s about the way the music of these songs washes over us and says something on a deep emotional level which resonates with every other part of the song.
You’ll think this is an obvious point. But you’d be surprised how many songwriters haven’t figured this one out, and how much more powerful their songs will be once they do.
The job of a song’s music is to express the idea that’s at the heart of that song. Finding a way to let it do that is the songwriters’ job. It’s not always something we’re able to explain. There’s not usually a way to find it intellectually. But the more music we get to know, and the more we connect emotionally with it, the more we’ll build up an instinctive library of styles and sounds that fit moods and emotions. And it’s our job to make sure our library is well stocked. That’s how great new music is made.