If there’s one thing that music is amazing at, it’s making listeners feel something. That something might be sorrow or anger or overwhelming joy and just about everything in between.
What’s perhaps even more amazing is that the emotion of music transcends genre. It’s not as though all metal is aggressive – there’s a ton of different genres and genre-bending artists making sure they’re adding variety to it.
The same goes for pop music – while we might associate the genre with happiness, the reality is that some of the most heartbreaking songs of all-time are ballads from pop artists. They just hit you a certain way and you feel it.
So, if genre doesn’t dictate emotion – what does? How can you as an artist add emotion to your songs?
1. Start with Your Lyrics
Lyrical content is the main thing many listeners are going to pay attention to when they’re hearing a song for the first time. For non-musicians, lyrics provide a relatable anchor for them to follow along with as long as the lyrics are in a language they speak. While they won’t be able to tell you what key a song is in or the technique the guitar player is using, they’ll be able to interpret the lyrics of the song after just a single listen.
For this reason alone, lyrics can add a very strong emotional context to many songs. Lyrics about partying and having a good time add to any song that’s already got a good vibe to it.
Interestingly enough, lyrics can also add a juxtaposition to how a song sounds and feels. The perfect example of this is “Bouncing Off The Walls” by Sugarcult. For those that aren’t familiar (or haven’t actually paid attention to the lyrics) – the song is an incredibly upbeat pop rock track, complete with a “whoa” call and response in the chorus.
But the rest of the lyrics? They’re about drug addiction and depression. And this song isn’t alone – Third Eye Blind, Motion City Soundtrack, Weezer, and dozens of others have experimented with similar lyrical themes in their music.
2. Choose the Right Key
From a music theory perspective, choosing the right key might be the single greatest way to change the emotion of a song. Sure – major and minor are basic decisions with the earlier sounding brighter and happier and the later sounding more melancholy, but what about more complex emotions?
This is where genres like jazz experiment with movement and modulation – going from one key to another to paint a section of a song in a different light. Simple key changes like going up or down a step can create rising or falling tension, but only through some experimentation with modulation can you create complex emotional storytelling musically.
3. Mixing with Modulation & Time-Based Effects
Using effects in your song can provide similar tonal changes without any music theory required. Reverbs and delays often set the tone and space around a sound, but this area is ripe for the emotional taking. Putting a solo instrument in a massive room with reverb can add an instant sense of loneliness regardless of key or composition.
Similarly, more aggressive forms of modulation like chorusing, phasing, tremolo & flange can start to make things sound really spacey and complex.
Adding harmonics to a melody or lead instrument also creates an interesting emotional dynamic as a 4th above your note will create tension with every note you play while switching to a 5th or octave will release that tension. Combined with delay repeats, this type of experimentation can provide endless musical opportunities to create emotion within your mix.
4. Get Cinematic with It!
Take a page out of Hans Zimmer’s book and start mixing in some cinematic elements with your productions!
If there’s one place where samples and organic sounds are thriving right now, it’s in music production for film and television. These are the places where clinking glass bottles and jingling keys are becoming percussive, rhythmic elements. The same instrumentation could be used in radio music too, but it’s far less common than it used to be.
These samples serve a single purpose – to create a relatable environment for listeners. There are certain sounds we hear that we immediately relate too and often form nostalgic memories of. Incorporating these sounds musically provides a connection to listeners that you just can’t get any other way.
5. Try Some New Instrumentation
If you’re not feeling the inspiration juices flowing just yet, there’s one more thing you might want to try – some new instruments.
While many instruments are common across all popular genres like drums, bass, and guitar, other instrumentation is used far less commonly. Introducing a simple violin or cello melody can completely change the emotion of your song. The same goes for different traditional instruments and instruments from various regions of the world.
Certain instruments just fit a certain style perfectly. There’s a reason 808 kicks are so common in music production – it’s because they create a hard, full-bodied tone every time. Regardless of the song, you know it’s going to pack a punch when you hear an 808 come in.
Sweet Mix, Bro!
While you’re contemplating the topic of emotional impact in your music, you might want to consider that the root of your problem just might be a lack of variety. There’s a reason traditional song structures work so well but fail to chart more often than not. The secret is to spice up the formula with a few curveballs.
This is where synths and sweeteners come into play. In film, we call these elements stingers, but in music, they're just another element of your mix and their sole purpose is to add a bit of variety to your production.
If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out our eBook, The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers & Sweeteners. This 50-page guide is the perfect resource for any producer looking to up the ante and pair killer song structure with just enough spice to keep their listeners hitting repeat!