How do artists express themselves through song?

From spiritual slave songs to modern pop songs, artists use both music (melody, instruments, rhythm) and lyrics (the words in the songs) to express their emotions. Consider how songs make you feel to understand how the artist is using the song to express emotions.

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Historically, songs have always been a form of expression. Many places of worship use music to express their devotion to their faith. In musical theater, characters break out into song when speaking is no longer enough. There is a whole genre of music named after emotion: the blues.

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Historically, songs have always been a form of expression. Many places of worship use music to express their devotion to their faith. In musical theater, characters break out into song when speaking is no longer enough. There is a whole genre of music named after emotion: the blues.

Think about different genres and how they might make you feel. Are rock songs more rebellious than a classical tune? What emotions does screamo music convey? Have you ever seen a live performance where it seemed like the performer was lackluster, or not as expressive as in recorded performances?

There are many parts that make up a song. First, we can examine the music itself. Melody, rhythm, tempo, and volume are all factors that can be used to express emotions. A slow, dissonant song might express a sadness while an upbeat, cheerful tune could convey happiness.

This is demonstrated in African American spirituals, songs that expressed the emotions of enslaved people:

In Africa, music had been central to people's lives: Music making permeated important life events and daily activities ... As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes ... Many spirituals, known as "sorrow songs," are intense, slow and melancholic ... Other spirituals are more joyful. Known as "jubilees," or "camp meeting songs," they are fast, rhythmic and often syncopated. (Library of Congress)

This leads us to discussing another aspect of song: the lyrics. Just as any form of writing, lyrics can directly tell us how an author is feeling, or they can be coded through symbols and metaphors:

Spirituals are also sometimes regarded as codified protest songs, with songs such as "Steal away to Jesus," composed by Wallis Willis, being seen by some commentators as incitements to escape slavery ... A spiritual that was certainly used as a code for escape to freedom was "Go down, Moses," used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north. (Library of Congress)

Using songs to express emotions is a historical practice that has continued into popular music of today. Singer-songwriter Taylor Swift has been writing since she was a teenager, and is very upfront about how she uses her songs to express herself:

I've written all my songs on every single one of my records, and that's what's been fun about looking back. My first album is the diary of when I was 14, 15, 16. My second album, Fearless, was from 16 to 18, and so on, and so on. So you have my life being recorded in journal entries from these two-year periods of my life since I was 16. I like to write about love and love lost because I feel like there are so many different subcategories of emotions that you can possibly delve into ... Thankfully, I've been able to write about those emotions as they've affected me. (NPR)

In examples throughout history, we see that songwriters use both music and lyrics to express their emotions in songs.

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