The Proper Way to Write a Song About Your Feelings

There are two ways to write a song about your feelings.

In the first, you can tell us what you’re feeling. You can tell us that you’re in love. You can tell us that you’re lonely. You can tell us that you’re blue. You can tell us that your heart is fluttering or whatever, or that it skipped a beat, or that you’re floating on air, etc. etc. etc.

Many songwriters take this approach. They rely on direct language or else reliable metaphors to explain what they’re feeling to listeners.

Unfortunately, this just makes for uninspiring songwriting. Even if the song is popular due to a good use of melody to capture the same feelings, you know the lyrics missed opportunities.

Fortunately, this is not the only way to write a song.

You can show instead of tell.

Few songwriters take this second approach better than Jason Isbell. We’ll use his song “Alabama Pines” as an example.

The songwriter in “Alabama Pines” never once has to say “I’m lonely” or “I’m sad,” but you leave this song behind with a heavy feeling of both emotions. Every stanza works to dig the loneliness a little deeper into your bones.

I can’t get to sleep at night. The parking lot’s so loud and bright.
The A.C. hasn’t worked in twenty years.
Probably never made a single person cold,
but I can’t say the same for me. I’ve done it many times.

A dingy AC, a dingy motel room. You feel it. It’s cold and empty in your soul. There’s no explanation required.

I’ve been stuck here in this town, if you could call it that, a year or two.
I never do what I’m supposed to do.
I don’t even need a name anymore.
When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away.

Namelessness, being a stranger in strange, dying town. This one stanza screams loneliness better than eighteen choruses of “Woe is me.”

I could go on. Isbell nails loneliness and despair and longing in this song.

Isbell’s songwriting succeeds here by turning conventional wisdom on its head. If you want to convey a universal abstract principle or idea or feeling, you don’t use universal or abstract language. You go specific. You get concrete. You use scenes and places and happenings which you know intimately. You take the bet that your listeners will understand what they mean for you.

Figure out your setting and your imagery. Tell me about your home state, the backroads, the dingy motels, the smell of smoke in your mother’s front parlor. Talk about that from and through the emotional state you’re in. You can do quite a lot toward telling me how you’re feeling, whether you’re writing a song or just about anything else.

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James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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