Music

How to Write a Love Song

Hitmaker Diane Warren unpacks the complicated alchemy involved in penning the perfect ballad.

Diane Warren, in the studio’s kitchen.
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IF YOU ARE reading this, there is absolutely zero chance that you, dear reader, have not at some point in your life hummed along with, cried to, belted out, or in some way, shape, or form, had a major life experience set to a song written by Diane Warren. This is not hyperbole, just a simple statement of fact. As one of the most successful living songwriters of our time, Diane Warren’s cultural reach is nearly unrivaled. Since the mid-1980s Warren has amassed a massive catalog of tunes that includes nine No. 1 songs and 32 top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, with cultural juggernauts such as Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time,” Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me,” Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart,” and Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Her songs have been featured in more than 100 movies, garnering her 13 Oscar nominations (including one this year for "Somehow You Do"), not to mention 15 Grammy nods and six Golden Globe nominations (and two wins). She has written songs in every conceivable genre and format, from ’80s hair metal to slinky R&B to voluminous pop, and has served as a go-to writer for the likes of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Mary J. Blige.

While her fingerprints are all over the past four decades of popular music, Warren is particularly untouchable when it comes to penning grandiose power ballads — the sweeping, chest-thumping, cry-your-eyes-out, and burn-your-own-house-down kind of songs that stir even the coldest of hearts. In the hands of the right vocalists, these songs can define entire careers. And somewhere in the world, at any given time, there is a drag queen lip-synching to a Diane Warren song, while somewhere else — right this very second — there is someone driving and singing along to a Diane Warren–penned banger, loudly and outrageously out of tune.

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So as we move into February, the most romantic and emotionally charged month of the year, who better to talk to than the legend herself about the objective value of a power ballad, and the power of love. I sat down with Diane Warren and eagerly listened as she spoke about the emotional currency of love songs, the mysterious mechanics of songwriting, and why all the best tunes have at least one thing in common — they make you feel something.

You’ve been writing songs for a long time now. Has your process changed over the years?

Not really. Basically, I’m in a room by myself all the time. During lockdown, I was like, “Look, I sit in a room by myself. What’s the difference?” I’ll tell you what the difference was though. I usually have people here working for me, and guess what? They weren’t here during the lockdown. I found it to be totally freeing.

Usually I write in my main room, but I have another room with a piano that I’m not usually in because there are people all around there. I was in there too, so I kind of could switch it up, and nobody was there to annoy me, except me. I can annoy myself too. But it was great. I got a lot done, and also it was pretty easy to reach artists. No one was on tour, so I had a lot of Zooms with a lot of artists, and got a lot of stuff done.

I do what I do all the time. I put my blinders on, and I just go to work. That’s just what I do every day. I was writing right before I got here, and I’m going to do it again when we’re done talking.

So has your creative process become even more insular than it was before?

No, I’m doing the same thing I was doing when I was 15 years old when my dad put a shed in my backyard so my parents didn’t have to hear me play the same song over and over, which is what I’m doing when I’m writing. It’s no different. I think I’m hopefully better than I was then, but the process is the same. I always say it’s simply showing up. So I go to work every day and I believe that the more you write, the better you become. It’s like being an athlete; the more you work, your muscles grow. If you want to be in the Olympics you’re going to have to practice every day. I practice by writing songs every day and I think I’m writing my best songs right now. It’s not like I’m sitting on a beach somewhere waiting to be inspired. It doesn’t work like that.

I was 15 years old when my dad put a shed in my backyard so my parents didn’t have to hear me play the same song over and over.

Because you’ve written so many huge ballads and songs about heartbreak, people must assume you are an expert on love. Are you? Many artists are drawn to writing about something for the opposite reason — because they don’t know anything about it and they are trying to understand.

I mean, I love what I write and I stand behind everything I write. But in my real life, I don’t want someone who’s staying awake just to hear me breathe, like the lyrics in “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” If someone were to say that to me, I think I’d be like, “Get the fuck out of here.” I don't personally know a lot about love. I know I love my friends and I love my family. I love music. I love my cat. But I’m not the expert at love because I’ve never really been in it like most people. And it’s never been a priority for me.

I know a lot of filmmakers, and often there is this idea when making a movie that there are so many things that have to come together perfectly in order for a movie to work. And if any one of those components is wrong, then the whole thing can fail.

Same thing with songs. Same thing with a hit record. A million things have to go right. Start out with the same metaphor. A movie has to have a great script. It just does. Then you have to build from there. It has to be shot right. It has to be cast right. It has to be promoted right. It’s the same with a record. Even if I write a great song, it still has to be produced right. It has to get the right artist. It has to have a machine behind it that gets it heard.

I know it’s an imprecise sort of alchemy, but why do certain songs reverberate at the right emotional level for people to connect with them while others don’t?

Who knows? I just try to write the best song I can write and then you hope that it finds the best home. I just finished a song two days ago and I heard somebody in my head — I’m not going to say who it was — and I texted that artist. I got together with him last night because I heard him singing it in my head. I usually don’t write something for somebody, but this was something I really heard. And literally the day after I wrote it, I was in the studio hearing him sing the song and it was like, “What a cool thing.” I think this song with this artist, at the right time, I think it’s going to be a massive hit. I’m really glad this artist hit me back because literally as soon as I finished the song, I texted him like, “I know you don’t really do other people’s songs, but you kind of need to hear this one.”

As a songwriter, do you have to divorce yourself from the song at a certain point and just let it go out into the world?

Yeah, you kind of have to. But, and also when I give up a song to an artist, I’m not always there in the studio with them. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m not. I have to realize that that song is their record now. I’m such a control freak with the songs, so sometimes when artists are doing vocals, I don’t even go in the studio. I’ll be down the hall because I’ll be like, “No, that’s the wrong melody. You’re not singing it right.” And no one wants to hear that. At the right time, I can say something if it’s integral to the song, but mostly you do have to realize that it’s the artist’s record at that point. I might have written the song, but then it becomes theirs. And so there’s something about letting go in that.

There are songs of yours that are so iconic that they will be a part of the popular consciousness forever. But there must be a lot of songs you have a fondness for that never became hits, where you think, “Why not that one?”

I have lots of them. I have so many, I don’t even know where to start, but one just popped into my head. I did a song for the Pet Shop Boys called “Numb.” That is one of my favorite songs. And people love the song. Just because something isn’t a top 10 record doesn’t mean the song doesn’t have a life. You don’t always realize that songs reach people and touch people and change people and make them feel better in ways you might never know. So some song might not necessarily be my biggest hit, but still be something that really had an impact on people.

I have a song called “Painted on My Heart” that the Cult did. I love that song. To me, that should have been a bigger hit than “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” But you never know. There’s a lot that goes into it. Maybe the record label didn’t get behind it like they should have. That’s happened a lot of times too. You never know.


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You’re also someone who has worked in every possible genre.

I work in all genres. I’ve even worked with rappers. I worked with Snoop and got him to sing on a song called “The Good Shit,” which became “The Good Good” because he didn’t want to say shit, which was really weird. I got censored by Snoop. But I write in every genre, whether it’s country, R&B, rock, classical. I’ve done a lot of stuff in Latin music. I’m kind of all over the place, which I love.

To me, there are two genres — it’s either good or bad.

Were you that kind of music listener when you were a kid?

Yeah, because I got to grow up in the best time ever to grow up — in the ’60s. And I also have older sisters, so I got to listen to all of their music. When I was growing up, the radio was everything. Top 40 was everything. It was Motown. It was Frank Sinatra. It was the Beatles. It was everything. It was Marvin Gaye. It wasn’t so rigidly formatted. I do think it’s interesting that kids now are kind of returning to that way of experiencing music. They listen to everything. That’s why there’s no such thing really as genres. To me, there are two genres — it’s either good or bad. But to answer your question, I was always a sponge. I’m a sponge now. Everything that I hear kind of comes into my music. I’ll write a ballad and end up with rap phrasing in it. I’m like, cool, that’s interesting how that popped in there.

Is there such a thing as a perfect song?

I hate perfection … except in the songs. It’s really weird. I want my songs to be perfect, but I don’t want the records and recording to be perfect. I like the messes and mistakes that make it feel human. If it’s an emotional performance, even if it’s not exactly perfect, you feel it.

It doesn’t matter what it is, even if it’s the most commercially popular song in the world, as long as it’s infused with some sort of genuine emotion when you hear it.

Yeah. That’s the thing. It's really about that. You’ve got to feel something. And I love great records and great production stuff, but the song has to be there and it has to make you feel something. The songs that last are the ones that make you feel something. They’ll make you feel something now and they’ll make you feel something in 50 years.

I thought that was what was so interesting about the reaction to the Beatles documentary. It not only reignited something about why those songs were so meaningful, but to see how they were actually made — that they didn’t just emerge fully formed — was somehow shocking.

Yeah! Also it’s like, wow, real musicians, real songs. I am lucky enough to have worked with two Beatles on my songs. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people, but to have two of the Beatles … you know, if you had told the childhood version of me — and I was lucky enough to have seen the Beatles twice, thanks to my older sisters, at the Hollywood Bowl — I just would never have imagined it. Like, “Holy shit, there’s two Beatles on my song.” The Beatles documentary is great to watch because there are no computers. They are actually playing real instruments. What a concept, right? There’s a lot of writing now that is all computerized. Not that you can’t make a good song that way, but sometimes I’m kind of shocked that I'll have somebody come in and they don’t know what a chord is. It’s kind of mind-boggling. But then there are also great musicians. I was just talking to my engineer about how weird it is when someone is a really good musician. It’s weird that it’s weird.

When your whole life revolves around making music and working with musicians and singers, how does that affect your relationship to listening to music?

Well, I listen to be aware of everything because I work with a lot of these artists, so I have to do that. But it’s hard for me to listen as a listener because I’m always analyzing stuff. And when I’m at home, I don’t listen to music because I’m doing it all day long. The last thing I want to do is go home and listen to more music.

How do you feel about people covering your songs?

I love it. You know what I love doing? I love going on YouTube and hearing different covers of my songs. Last week someone tagged me in this really great version of “Blame It on the Rain.” I hit this guy back and I’m like, “Put this shit out because this is cool. And that is a song that could be a hit again.” He flipped it. It was really cool.

You recently put out your first proper solo album, which has a million amazing people — Celine, John Legend, Ty Dolla Sign, Maren Morris — performing your songs. As a songwriter, do you ever have performer envy? Did you ever want to be the person up there onstage? Songwriters don’t always get the same attention the performers do, obviously.

Yeah, but we’re not supposed to. Look, I’m lucky that some people know my name as a songwriter, but I don’t mind if they don’t because that’s not my job. I’m not the star. Even on my record, I wasn’t used to having my name being before the artist’s names. I’m happy if it’s just their name. But I guess it’s my record so it kind of had to be there. But when I first wanted to be a songwriter, it was all about who was in the parentheses on the 45s singles — back in the days of dinosaurs, when there were 45s singles. I would see those little parentheses where the songwriter’s name was, and that’s what I wanted to be. It wasn’t the name on the front of the record, it was the name in the parentheses. It’s fine with me.

A big emotional ballad? I fucking love writing that.

It’s also cool, as a songwriter, that you’ve been around long enough to see your songs interpreted by multiple people.

That’s the cool thing. And some people will go, “Oh, well someone else did that song. I can’t do it.” I’m like, “That’s stupid. Just make it your own.” For example, Beyonce did my song, “I Was Here,” and people really love that song. It became a graduation anthem, which is ironic since I myself basically dropped out of college and barely graduated high school and was kicked out of two junior highs, but that’s a whole other thing. Anyway, Beyonce recorded this song originally and then Dame Shirley Bassey covered it. The versions are totally opposite. Beyonce’s version is so good. And then I heard Shirley Bassey [and] I’m like, “Fuck, that’s just great.” It’s coming from a different place because with Beyonce, it’s like, “I was here, I lived, I love.” It’s almost like what she’s going to do. And Shirley Bassey’s version is like looking back on her life. And it’s so powerful. I’m like, “I got fucking Shirley Bassey singing my song.” It’s pretty fucking cool.

Your work will always be connected, in some way, with Celine Dion. How do you feel about that?

She is incredible. And I remember even when I first worked with her, she didn’t speak English yet. She was young. And I remember that she wouldn’t talk when she was making a record, she’d write things down. She values her instrument and she works hard at it. She’s one of the best singers ever, and I’ve been lucky to work with so many great singers. I think Celine has done 18 or 19 of my songs at this point and some of the best ones, in my opinion, weren’t even the big singles.

So, back to love … are big power ballads the sweet spot for you?

I can’t say that I don’t love writing a big ballad. A big emotional ballad? I fucking love writing that. But when I write one of those, I have to write something opposite to it afterwards. But yeah, there’s nothing better than a big fucking heartbreaking ballad. I have to admit that. And I’ve still got a bunch of them up my sleeve.

Diane Warren’s Most Iconic Anthems

Editor T. Cole Rachel revisits some of the biggest hits and a few deep cuts from the songwriter’s storied career.

  • “Rhythm of the Night” — DeBarge

    Not only is this song Diane Warren’s first big commercial hit, it’s also just one of the most effervescent pop songs of the mid-’80s. If you were lucky enough to be in elementary school at the time, there is a high probability that you may have roller-skated to this song or gotten down to it at a school dance. When El DeBarge advises you to “forget about the worries on your mind, you can leave them all behind,” you do it. Backed by a vaguely calypso-sounding beat, everyone — including my adolescent self — felt like kicking up their neon-clad feet. Already a classic, this song got a bump recently after it became a running reference on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” due to the fact that one of the contestants bore a striking resemblance to a young, mulleted El DeBarge.

  • “Because You Loved Me” — Celine Dion

    While almost no one remembers this song was originally the theme song for a 1996 movie called “Up Close & Personal” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, few humans who lived through the ’90s don’t know the song itself. The perfect marriage of performer and songwriter, “Because You Loved Me” sold over six million copies worldwide and was No. 1 in the United States, Canada, and Australia for what felt like years. Only someone with a voice as big as Celine Dion could convincingly sell an equally large sentiment as: “You were my strength when I was weak / You were my voice when I couldn’t speak / You were my eyes when I couldn’t see / You saw the best there was in me / I’m everything I am because you loved me.” Pop grandiosity at the highest level.

  • “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — Aerosmith

    Another movie-related anthem, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was recorded by Aerosmith in 1998 for the soundtrack of the sci-fi doomsday movie “Armageddon.” Warren had originally envisioned the song as another possible hit for Celine Dion, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone but Steven Tyler mustering the appropriate amount of bombast to send this rock ballad into the stratosphere. Not only did this song once again jump-start Aerosmith’s career (giving them their first and only No. 1 song here in the States), it went on to be No. 1 in Australia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Austria, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. A hundred years from now people may not remember the killer asteroid movie that spawned it, but there will still be someone trying to sing it in a karaoke bar.

  • “Un-Break My Heart” — Toni Braxton

    Even if Toni Braxton had never recorded another song but this one, having created “Un-Break My Heart” (and the hyperdramatic video that accompanied it) would have been enough. An inspired collision of singer and song, the larger-than-life heartbreak of this track (“Un-break my heart! Un-cry these tears!”) is the kind of thing Diane Warren does better than anyone else. The song, in which Braxton pleads with a lover to come back and fix all the damage they have created, is still one of the best-selling singles of all time, having moved over 10 million copies worldwide. As a woman who has been profoundly wronged, Braxton sells this howling heartbreak at an almost operatic level, which is why this remains one of the most iconic R&B songs of all time.

  • “Blame It on the Rain” — Milli Vanilli

    The story of Milli Vanilli is both sordid and sad — these ’80s style icons and smooth pop operators were stripped of their Grammy when it was revealed that they didn’t actually sing on their records, an offense that seems almost quaint now in retrospect. Regardless of whose voice is actually singing on this track, “Blame It on the Rain” is, was, and will always be one of the great singles of its time, a globally ubiquitous pop song all about accountability and admitting that a wrecked romance is actually all your own fault.

  • “Have You Ever” — Brandy

    People should never be allowed to forget that in the late ’90s there were few stars bigger than Brandy. This song, included on her 1998 sophomore album, is not only a crown jewel in Brandy’s catalog, but also one of Warren’s most affecting R&B songs. The sound of pure yearning, “Have You Ever” is equal parts missing the person you can never get back and mourning a love you can never seem to find. “Have you ever loved somebody so much it makes you cry?” asks Brandy. Yes, we all have. This is also the ultimate sitting-alone-in-your-bedroom-thinking-about-your-crush song. Essentially, perfect.

  • “I Get Weak” — Belinda Carlisle

    After stepping away from the Go-Go’s to pursue a solo career, Belinda Carlisle basically managed to dominate the planet in 1987 with the monster hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” As a follow-up, she released “I Get Weak” — a no less stellar pop single. “I get weak when I look at you, weak when we touch, I can’t speak when I look in your eyes” sings Carlisle in a song that delivers all the emotions required of an ’80s power ballad, tailor-made for slow dancing at a prom. Fun fact: The video for this track was directed by actress Diane Keaton, and featured model Tony Ward, who would later make everyone swoon in Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video. Also, I owned this on a cassingle, which in retrospect feels appropriate.

  • “Rhythm of the Night” — DeBarge

    Not only is this song Diane Warren’s first big commercial hit, it’s also just one of the most effervescent pop songs of the mid-’80s. If you were lucky enough to be in elementary school at the time, there is a high probability that you may have roller-skated to this song or gotten down to it at a school dance. When El DeBarge advises you to “forget about the worries on your mind, you can leave them all behind,” you do it. Backed by a vaguely calypso-sounding beat, everyone — including my adolescent self — felt like kicking up their neon-clad feet. Already a classic, this song got a bump recently after it became a running reference on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” due to the fact that one of the contestants bore a striking resemblance to a young, mulleted El DeBarge.

  • “Blame It on the Rain” — Milli Vanilli

    The story of Milli Vanilli is both sordid and sad — these ’80s style icons and smooth pop operators were stripped of their Grammy when it was revealed that they didn’t actually sing on their records, an offense that seems almost quaint now in retrospect. Regardless of whose voice is actually singing on this track, “Blame It on the Rain” is, was, and will always be one of the great singles of its time, a globally ubiquitous pop song all about accountability and admitting that a wrecked romance is actually all your own fault.

  • “Because You Loved Me” — Celine Dion

    While almost no one remembers this song was originally the theme song for a 1996 movie called “Up Close & Personal” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, few humans who lived through the ’90s don’t know the song itself. The perfect marriage of performer and songwriter, “Because You Loved Me” sold over six million copies worldwide and was No. 1 in the United States, Canada, and Australia for what felt like years. Only someone with a voice as big as Celine Dion could convincingly sell an equally large sentiment as: “You were my strength when I was weak / You were my voice when I couldn’t speak / You were my eyes when I couldn’t see / You saw the best there was in me / I’m everything I am because you loved me.” Pop grandiosity at the highest level.

  • “Have You Ever” — Brandy

    People should never be allowed to forget that in the late ’90s there were few stars bigger than Brandy. This song, included on her 1998 sophomore album, is not only a crown jewel in Brandy’s catalog, but also one of Warren’s most affecting R&B songs. The sound of pure yearning, “Have You Ever” is equal parts missing the person you can never get back and mourning a love you can never seem to find. “Have you ever loved somebody so much it makes you cry?” asks Brandy. Yes, we all have. This is also the ultimate sitting-alone-in-your-bedroom-thinking-about-your-crush song. Essentially, perfect.

  • “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” — Aerosmith

    Another movie-related anthem, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was recorded by Aerosmith in 1998 for the soundtrack of the sci-fi doomsday movie “Armageddon.” Warren had originally envisioned the song as another possible hit for Celine Dion, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone but Steven Tyler mustering the appropriate amount of bombast to send this rock ballad into the stratosphere. Not only did this song once again jump-start Aerosmith’s career (giving them their first and only No. 1 song here in the States), it went on to be No. 1 in Australia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Austria, Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. A hundred years from now people may not remember the killer asteroid movie that spawned it, but there will still be someone trying to sing it in a karaoke bar.

  • “I Get Weak” — Belinda Carlisle

    After stepping away from the Go-Go’s to pursue a solo career, Belinda Carlisle basically managed to dominate the planet in 1987 with the monster hit “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.” As a follow-up, she released “I Get Weak” — a no less stellar pop single. “I get weak when I look at you, weak when we touch, I can’t speak when I look in your eyes” sings Carlisle in a song that delivers all the emotions required of an ’80s power ballad, tailor-made for slow dancing at a prom. Fun fact: The video for this track was directed by actress Diane Keaton, and featured model Tony Ward, who would later make everyone swoon in Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video. Also, I owned this on a cassingle, which in retrospect feels appropriate.

  • “Un-Break My Heart” — Toni Braxton

    Even if Toni Braxton had never recorded another song but this one, having created “Un-Break My Heart” (and the hyperdramatic video that accompanied it) would have been enough. An inspired collision of singer and song, the larger-than-life heartbreak of this track (“Un-break my heart! Un-cry these tears!”) is the kind of thing Diane Warren does better than anyone else. The song, in which Braxton pleads with a lover to come back and fix all the damage they have created, is still one of the best-selling singles of all time, having moved over 10 million copies worldwide. As a woman who has been profoundly wronged, Braxton sells this howling heartbreak at an almost operatic level, which is why this remains one of the most iconic R&B songs of all time.

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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Writer

T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.

Arianna Lago Photographer

Based in Los Angeles, photographer Arianna Lago finds inspiration in the quiet observation of nature and searching for beauty in the everyday. Her style transforms manipulated organic compositions, applying a strong sensitivity to color. Her work conveys an effortless fragility and an organic, painterly feel. Select clients include Chanel, Dior, Vogue Italia, Financial Times, Roksanda, and Pucci.

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