Songwriting

Heart vs. Head: How To Write Your Best Songs

by Clay Mills
May 25, 2021

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

Clay Mills

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.

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