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 throws in a ton of feeling and emotion, but often gets so close to the subject matter that not enough thought goes into the lyric. Therefore, the song is weakened by a lack of perspective, which leads to the listener to actually feel less emotion!

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” a great song.

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. 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 has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay Mills is also the co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing. 

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

  1. 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!

  2. Love this. For me, I’ve viewed the phrasing as my foundational underpinning. And this allows me to strike a balance I think is decent (at least I hope!). After all, every song that’s ever been written has been written a thousand times. So I pride myself on being able to phrase love and heartbreak and angst and anguish and celebration differently, through poetic verbiage, that’s hopefully different enough that it reflects my personal experience and style.

    I hadn’t wrote a song for over a decade until I heard “Lungs” one day by Townes and thought “I don’t know what he’s saying!” So I went to read the lyrics, and it was a poem. Balanced, beautiful, alliterative – just amazing. I read more and more, and they never needed music. They stood alone as just poetry. That sparked something in me to try to emulate, in a sense, and that’s how I feel I find my balance – e.g. “How does this read to someone absent the guitar and singing?”

    Not sure if I’m doing it right; not like I got any hits! But it feels right, and I feel the balance about which you’re speaking when I write.

  3. 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!

  4. I’m confused, what you call Head writing I thought was Editing. I thought editing was a post-writing task. I take your article to mean, while you are writing, be aware of the amount of heart lines and head lines. Should they appear 50/50? How much is too much of either? This fine tuning is to happen during the writing phase? Doesn’t that hinder creativity? Or is the fine tuning after the writing EX: Looking at a completed verse and deciding it has too many heart lines so I need to insert a head line to balance it out. I don’t understand the creative river aspect at all. Is it something you jump in and out of or something you swim in as you write?

    1. I don’t have the credentials some others have, but what I like to do is put the songs I’m not sure about on the shelf and come back in a week or two with fresh eyes. Suddenly I find that I have too many syllables for the rhythm in this line, “Wait, I just used the same word three times in this verse,” and “Why am I rhyming “me” with “me'” and stuff like that. In my humble, normie opinion, the worst thing we can do with a song as writers is force ourselves to write the song through some formulaic approach rather than allowing the song to write itself, if that makes sense.

      I think if you stumble upon that creative river, you’ll float along nicely. Though if you go seeking it, you might be looking for Atlantis sunken under Shanghai-La and come back with nothing.

  5. So true. The balance I think is having to write to the “sounds of today” versus what you were raised under. Do you compromise? Do you try to make it sound like today’s country? Do you stick with your roots? Do you combine the two? There are a few country artists that hear some beats from the 50s sound which I think is cool to incorporate that.

  6. 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. ?

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