Heart vs. Head: How To Write Your Best Songs

heart vs. head songwriting


Songwriting is beautifully complex and yet simple…

I am often reminded when teaching aspiring songwriters how simple, and yet complex, writing a song can be. It’s a beautiful mix of emotions, wit, determination, and being in the moment. A very common obstacle I see to great writing is what I call “Heart vs. Head Songwriting.” 

Too much emotional attachment…

When a song (let’s say a ballad) means a lot to the writer, he or she writes with loads of feeling and emotion. But often gets so close to the subject matter that not enough thought and story goes into the lyric.

“You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity.”

~Joni Mitchell

Therefore, the song is weakened by a lack of perspective, which leads to the listener to actually feel less emotion when they hear it! But, given a little time and perspective, you could write about how you’re better off without the ex lover. Or, maybe about how you thought you were gonna never get over them, and now you’ve discovered how strong you really are! A little distance and perspective goes a long way in writing a great song. Heart vs Head songwriting has a second component.

Too heady…

On the flip side, if the song is fun and uptempo, often it’s too “heady.” It might be chocked full of clever lines and twists, but lacks heart, realness, or believability. These types of songs often contain amazing lines in their own right, but don’t really contribute to making the song “in the room” that day a great song.

This concept doesn’t just pertain to writing lyrics. I can say the same about writing music…

In my early twenties while studying music at Berklee College, I learned all kinds of cool, sophisticated chord progressions. Then I threw them into every new song I wrote! 

I was so excited about using all the knowledge I now had in my head that I forgot to check myself: “Do these chords fit the emotion of the overall song?” Intellectually cool music, yes, but do you think I got any of these songs recorded by a major artist? No! 

Songs are a finely tuned balance of heart and head songwriting …

As a teacher, it’s a great feeling when I see a student, in one of our SongTown MasterClasses or mentoring session, get this concept.

Songs are not meant to be Heart vs. Head songwriting.

They should be a finely tuned balance of both with each serving the master: the song. It took me a long time to learn to write from this magical place that is deeper than either the heart or the head. It’s the well just below where we draw from, a place I call the Creative River.

Write on! ~Clay



Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

22 thoughts on “Heart vs. Head: How To Write Your Best Songs

  1. Badda boom! … Creative River indeed… writing real, writing simple; writing & arranging to listeners from a positional depth of pure & clean… listeners who are just that, simply listeners who must be willfully served, & given to while being held harmless, to the end! The listener’s hope of interest is the journey we’re ever privileged to take them on… such privilege in min/sec form today, is still the oldest & most SACRED compact of man & beast throughout civilizational history! As simple as 2 rocks in hand, clapping in time, projecting over the surface of a glassy lake or from a distant past & distant cave opening around a bend… on a sheer rock wall! I Chose today To Listen Very Carefully… Quietly… for form… essence… honest & raw real!
    ;^~ 🎶

  2. When I write, I call it “Capture the song” because those magical lyrics or verses will come into my mind when I can be anywhere. If I’m at work, home watching a movie, or just out somewhere, these ideas come drifting by and it’s up to me to choose to document them.

    Those are the songs that can be special. It is rare for me to say “I’m heading to the music room” with the intent of writing a song. I can’t force it, but if that snippet comes floating into my consciousness, either as an idea or a complete lyric, I need to stop and grab pen and paper so I can write it down before it fades! I’ve written some good ones this way!

  3. Well said Clay,
    I have always thought that my better stuff comes from a magical place. I can’t pretend I know the street address to that special place, because it only reveals itself to me when I least expect it to and in the excitement of finding it, I lose the directions on how I got there. When I finish a song written this way, it’s not obvious in the moment of writing it, but later on listening to the song, a bell rings in my head that my heart was visiting there if only for a fleeting moment. I can’t remember how I got there but I’m always thankful and greatful that I was there.

  4. Sometimes you just have to let it talk to you
    and fall in place
    Let it be the stranger
    That woke you up in your dream

  5. Great stuff Clay!
    Giving a song idea some space and time so a perspective can be found is a cool idea. That moment of clarity as Joni Mitchell says. Then, put it to music that doesn’t get in the way of the message and make the lyrics simple, direct and conversational.

  6. It sounds like you are saying you have to alter yourself when song writing. When I write, there is no change in my thinking/feeling balance. Nothing is altered, I’m still everyday me. I tend to think more than feel. I do write thinking about the emotional element but I’m thinking about it, not feeling it. So is there any hope for me?

    1. Absolutely, there is hope! It’s just a matter of learning to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. You will get better at hearing the song the way your audience is going to hear it.

  7. Common sense backed up by skills. This realism of believability and being in the moment translates into acting stage and film, public speaking, and of course to performing music live. Thank you for permission to keep this tread through the writing a s well. ?

  8. I can picture an image of heart and head completely in balance rising from the Creative River making music everyone follows. SongTown is such a great source of inspiration, all the lessons shared target different ways to approach songwriting in a unique way that does not sound like a broken record even when teaching similar concepts with the same goal, write a great song. Thank you for that!

  9. Thanks for this. So many writers (me included) get stuck in one or the other and forget what it’s about. It’s about serving what’s best for the song. Great insight as always!

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