Why You Can't Write Music That Accurately Expresses Your Ideas and Emotions

Do you struggle to write music that accurately expresses your ideas and emotions? Find out why and get solutions by reading this songwriting article.

Ultimate Guitar

Do you want to be able to write music that conveys your ideas and emotions as accurately as possible? This is something that many songwriters struggle with even though they spend a lot of time writing songs. Writing highly expressive music requires you to do more than simply follow standard songwriting formulas and come up with cool sounding ideas "in the moment"... To truly create songs that express the way you feel, you must actively work at integrating "music" together with your thoughts and emotions.

In this article, I am going to discuss 4 approaches to songwriting that hold you back from writing music with a high degree of self-expression. For each approach I will describe how it potentially limits your musical expression, then give you advice and guidance to help you begin writing your music in a more self-expressive manner. Here are 4 of the most common ways that you could be unknowingly sabotaging your songwriting to make it less expressive:

1. Your only method for writing songs is to improvise until you finally come up with something that sounds "cool."

Many songwriters use this approach to write music and experience a lot of frustration when their songs don't turn out how they want them to. On one hand, improvising on your instrument to come up with interesting musical ideas can be a great tool for inspiring new ideas that spark the creation of a new song... On the other hand, if this is the ONLY method you use in your songwriting, you will quickly experience difficulty when it comes to expressing your thoughts and emotions accurately in your music.

The reason for this is in your songwriting mindset. While writing in a more improvised manner, you are concentrating on "playing something interesting" rather than "expressing specific ideas." To create songs that accurately express your ideas, you need to take an opposing approach. Rather than using improvising as your main method for songwriting, begin mapping out your songs ahead of time by first determining what you want to express, then writing your music to match these ideas or emotions.

2. You limit your expressive options by only writing music to express basic emotions.

To be able to write music with a high degree of self-expression you need to learn how create songs that convey a wide range of emotions. In other words, if you always approach your songwriting with the intent of writing music that is "happy" or "sad" you are missing out on a plethora of expressive options and will be limiting your ability to write "deeper" more emotionally complex music. Many songwriters fall back on this basic/generalized approach because they are not used to writing to express specific ideas. The problem with this is your music will usually reflect what you are trying to express (regardless of your songwriting level). As a result, you end up writing music that sounds over-simplified because you are trying to write for (what you interpret as) "simple" emotions. This songwriting approach will cause you to run out of good ideas after writing only a few melodies or chords for your song. As you continue writing, you will start to feel as if you need to mix in another emotion to give your music more variety. It's for this reason that so many "happy" songs contain an alternate section/bridge that conveys the feeling of "sadness."

As you write your music, think of it like painting a picture. When you exclusively use the most basic emotions, it is like you are limiting your painting to only the primary colors (red/yellow/blue). It's true that you "can" create great art with these colors; however, you give yourself nearly endless options for creative expression by mixing the colors together and giving yourself more options.

3. You view music theory as a "liability" to your songwriting creativity.

This line of thinking is very common Many songwriters and musicians view music theory as a bunch of "rules" that hold them back from expressing themselves as openly as possible. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Learning music theory is NOT just about memorizing the scales, ear training and part writing. The real purpose of music theory is to help you learn how to transform "sound" into "music" and make it express your specific ideas, thoughts and emotions. The more you learn about music theory, the better (and more creatively) you can express yourself through music.

4. You do not have a clear definition for the emotions you want to express musically BEFORE you try to express them in your songs.

Before you can accurately explain something to someone, you must (of course) have a good understanding of the idea itself. With this in mind, have you really taken the time to gain an in-depth understanding of the ideas and emotions you want to express musically? Are you able to quickly improvise music on your instrument that accurately conveys "exact" ideas or emotions? Can you express the same feeling in your music using ANY element of songwriting? Finally, can you quickly identify how a musician is expressing specific emotions musically as you listen to their music in the moment? If not, you will greatly benefit by creating a solid foundation of musical expression for yourself. Do this by using the following 4 step exercise to develop your musical expression skills:

Step One: Get started by writing down any of these basic emotions on a sheet of paper: happiness, anger, sadness, surprise or fear. Then, look up four synonyms for the emotion that you chose using a thesaurus. Write these new emotions down on your sheet of paper as well (leave a good amount of space between each one).

Step Two: Now you will have five separate emotions: Four more complex emotions and one general/basic emotion. Now, think creatively about the things that cause (or have caused) you to feel each emotion and write this down beside each one. By writing this down, you work to bring the feelings of your experience into your active mind. This process of tying together personal experience with each emotion will make the emotion feel more fresh and "expressible" in your mind. Until you make this connection, it will be very hard to express yourself "specifically" through music.

Step Three: Next, below each of the emotions you have written down write the words "melody," "chords" and "rhythm." Beside each one of these musical elements, write down how you will use them to express each one of the emotions you chose. Think creatively and try to come up with 1-3 ideas for each element and its matching emotion.

Step Four: Now, begin writing a totally new song by using any of the five emotions you wrote down (along with its corresponding ideas using the three different musical elements). To give yourself tons of new ideas for your songwriting, repeat this exercise several more times. This will greatly expand your vocabulary for musical expression and help you gain momentum in the process of learning to write more expressively in your music.

Remember: Learning to express yourself accurately in your music requires consistent practice and dedication. Don't feel discouraged if progress is slow at first. Anything that CAN be expressed HAS been expressed musically. The more you work at developing this skill, the easier it will get and the more self-expressive you will become!

About The Author: Ryan Buckner is a professional guitarist and composer with many years of experience writing informative articles on the topics of guitar playing, music theory and songwriting technique. On his songwriting lessons website, he shows musicians how to create good music and write songs that sound highly expressive.

11 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I see theory as something like the alphabet. To make words you need to know the letters. To make songs you need a general understanding of how music works.
    #3 is probably the best reason. I've heard SO MANY guitarists (both on this site and off it) state that they don't see the point of theory. You express the point of it quite well in about 2 sentences.
    I'll admit I used to think like that very heavily, but now after learning a bit of theory understand how it doesn't limit me. I know what I'm going to do to get a certain sound now, instead of trial and error. I mean I don't think knowing theory like Tosin Abasi is necessarily important unless you plan to play like that, but a basic-intermediate understanding of theory can be very helpful I think.
    Yes, this is a very common line of thinking for many musicians. Thanks for reading.
    I started learning theory a few weeks ago, it really is necessary, same as everything you gotta know how it works if you want to make it your self.
    If you're referring to the other article, we never said we didn't see the point, actually I'm going to major in music very soon so please tell me where you saw that. I also know a lot about theory already. I don't know much about the whole rhythmic stuff(such as two over three and poly-rhythms and like 9/8 time,I know the basics of it such as 4/4, 6/8, and 2/4). I know how to read and right music. I can make progressions, tonal and modal(not in the same song, although pitch axis is a credible way to do something like that). I do however know a guitarist or two that think that way as well. They don't see the point in theory, although theory is a great asset.
    This article is great! I also downloaded the guide in your link and it gave me a lot of useful ideas that I never thought of before. Keep up the good work...
    I think this is interesting... You can replace "sad" with any other feeling.
    Thanks for posting this. I think this speaker does a good job summing up some of the debate in the 'philosophy of music' and making it accessible for the general public. However, I don't believe he concluded that our interpretation of the emotion in music is entirely subjective/experience based as you concluded in your response; he left it open toward the end of the video. For the sake of this article, I leaned mostly toward using personal experience as the fuel for self-expression with no real comment on the nature of music itself. Personally I think (as with many philosophical theories) there is a balance - the experience of emotion in music is a mix of both emotional characteristics that we personally ascribe to the notes (that may also be culturally embedded in us) and our physical/neurological responses to the actual soundwaves themselves. In other words there is a certain degree of both subjective interpretation and objective or at least seemingly objective involuntary response. Very interesting stuff. And for sure, any major conclusion to this age old debate is far beyond the practical purposes of the article above.
    I'll probably agree with this and I might also add. A great deal of the way a listener interprets a song is in the lyrics rather in the music itself. That could also be the reason why especially many non-musicians don't care for instrumental songs. They just don't touch them emotionally. For example listen to this song, I think the melodies/chords sound pretty happy almost like a lullaby when isolated but combined with the lyrics/video the result is pretty dramatic.