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Songs: Emotional Dynamite
By Mary Dawson - 05/28/2007 - 11:27 PM EDT

This article will begin a new series in "Mary's Musings." Since in recent articles we have been covering some of the "business" aspects of promoting songs on radio, we will now focus for a while on the more "creative" aspects of songwriting -- basics for approaching the craft with understanding.


When my oldest daughter was just 2 years old, we would be riding in the car happily listening to a cassette or to the radio, when suddenly….Martha would burst into tears. Alarmed, we would ask her, "What's the matter?" Between heart-wrenching sobs, she would gasp, "That's a sad, sad song!" We would chuckle and comfort her, but those experiences actually taught me one of the most important principles of songwriting: Songs are first and foremost an emotional commodity.

Somehow the combination of expressive words and memorable music has the capacity to bypass our mental filters and go straight to the heart. Whether we are a music lover who simply enjoys listening to songs -- or the songwriter who creates them -- we must realize that songs are emotional dynamite. Songs can reach past all our defenses and cause us to hear the echoes of our hearts rather than the logic of our brains. Hit songwriter, Sandy Knox, puts it this way: "My goal as a songwriter is to make my listeners want to laugh, or to cry or to make love. It's as simple and as difficult as that!"

Great songwriters recognize that effective songs both come from our emotions and speak to our emotions. A "hit song" is simply one that touches the emotions of lots of people. To produce hits, writers MUST be in touch with their own emotions and then they must communicate those feelings with both words and music that listeners can grasp. As Jim Webb puts it, songwriters "create the colors that…paint images on the mind itself." The goal of the aspiring "hit" writer should be to have every listener say, "Wow! I feel that! That's me!" Songs that accomplish this goal are what we call "universal" in their appeal and their impact will be around for decades.

The key here is that we must learn to think like a songwriter in our approach to all of life. We must become sensitized to what we are living every day -- feeling deeply the joys and learning from the sorrows. I heard something several years ago that changed my attitude toward painful life events. A speaker once posed the question: "What is the most universal experience of life?" Most of the audience guessed that it would be Love. But then the speaker gave the real answer. Love is only the second most universal experience. The most universal life experience is PAIN. As a songwriter, then, what then should be my attitude toward pain? Rather than resisting it, I must learn from it, become sensitized to the myriad of human emotions that accompany it and write from those feelings inside of me -- to the feelings of others.

It is my belief that great songwriters are usually also philosophers to some degree. They love life and they let life lead them into truth. Instead of using all their emotional energy to fight against the circumstances they are facing, they let their life experiences carry them into new understandings…new sensitivities…and, ultimately, into new creativity. Superficial people usually don't write great songs -- neither do angry and bitter ones!

John Jarrard, one of Nashville's most prolific songwriters, is the creator of hits for dozens of artists. His catalog is filled with songs of all emotions -- funny songs, sad songs, songs about love, songs about loss, songs about the realities of life. Is it coincidence that John has suffered from complications of diabetes for more than 25 years - including blindness, circulatory problems and even amputations of his foot and finger?

If you are thinking like a songwriter as you travel through life, you will find songs everywhere…in every circumstance, every person, every season and every day. If you are courageous enough to launch into the emotional deeps and to truly feel those experiences, you will begin to communicate those emotions to others in the songs you write. If millions of listeners identify with your song, you will have a "hit" and if generations of listeners identify with your song, you will have a "standard."

A great song can change the heart of a person or a nation. Never underestimate the emotional power of a great song!

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